I love Sam Cooke. I could listen to his voice all day. It’s not just his vocal styling that marks him as a man from another time; it’s his lyrics. If he wrote “You Send Me” today, the words would have to go more like this:
Darling, unnnnn-friend me
I knew you’d unfriend me
Darling, unnnnn-friend me
The way that you do, way that you do
You always do, whoa
Ill will me
I know you, you, you ill will me
Darling, you ill will me
You always do
At first I thought it was just irritation
But whoa, it’s lasted so long
Now I find myself wanting
To glare at you and block your phone, whoa
What is this all about? Here we are with one of the most impressive technological innovations of all time, which is social networking. Yet, somehow, it seems to have set us back decades in terms of actual communication. I know of siblings who are no longer on speaking terms, a man who was unfriended by the best man from his wedding; pick a family or friend relationship and you can easily find an example of one that was destroyed via social media. Not a single week has gone by that I haven’t seen someone make a public announcement to the effect of: “If you don’t agree with this post, do us both a favor and unfriend me now” or “I just unfriended someone/nearly everyone on my list.” We’re supposed to feel pleased when we’re able to read the announcements that we have “made the cut” – rather than worried about all the times we haven’t.
Friendship means something different now. Apparently, friendship means meeting only the strictest of standards. We can only keep our friends if we continue to manage the tightrope walk of self-expression. Each person has different rules – absolute, relationship-defining rules – about how personal or impersonal, political or neutral, others’ posts are. We’ve started treating each other like TV channels on the far end of the dial, channels we can avoid or click away from if we don’t like the programming available.
I still remember each and every time I have been made aware that I was unfriended. That includes the ex-spouses of friends, with whom I had no issues. It makes sense, but it still stings a bit. “Hey! I wasn’t taking sides!” My policy is only to unfriend someone if I believe I am incapable of staying in the same room and being civil if I encountered the person socially. That’s a pretty stiff criterion that virtually never applies. So it’s possible that I take it more personally than others on the occasions when I’ve been unfriended “for cause,” which means posting something that someone else finds offensive. It goes like this:
What the heck do we think friendship is, exactly?
I think the more socially isolated we become, the more we interact with screens instead of human faces, the more we converse through text, the more we start to base our concept of how friendship works on what we see in fiction. Text can only get across about 10% of a person’s meaning; it cuts off all the facial expressions, tones of voice, laughter, body language, comedic impersonations, hand signs, and opportunities for social touch that happen when we meet in person. That’s why we’ve started to use emoticons and vines and memes as punctuation. We know that even the best writer isn’t going to be able to get the emotions across. At least, a writer can’t do it in small snippets. We like movies and TV shows that give us at least a few hours to learn a character’s arc. We cease to give the same kind of time to our real, non-acting, living and breathing human friends.
I think friendship happens in levels, as it should, and that it’s best to restrict the highest levels to only a very small number of specific individuals.
There are a lot of pitfalls between levels of friendship. One is regarding a work friend as a higher-level friend, and disrespecting professional boundaries by oversharing. Taking a work friendship to another level requires the utmost finesse in protocol; it’s best saved for the time when one work buddy leaves the company for a different job. Over-bonding with work friends is inevitably strained when one of you gets a promotion, particularly to management. It’s better to commit to each other’s success and continued progress up the ladder than to try for personal friendship. More common is to expect casual friends to be as trustworthy and loyal as closer friends, or to expect close friends to be soulmates.
How do you ruin a friendship? Lots of ways. Uncountable ways. NEVER FORGIVE. Expect the punctuality of a walking clock with an AI. Expect total loyalty, especially when you’re in the wrong. Demand that people pick sides. Talk politics. Take your confusion and high blood pressure to a public forum whenever anything in the news distresses you. Expect high levels of personal emotional commitment from everyone in your social circle. Confide things you wouldn’t want to be known publicly. Apologize stingily and regard it as losing face. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “I’m sorry but.”
Societies swing between total individualism on one side of the pendulum, and total collectivism on the other. What is seen as an appropriate boundary between a person and a group depends on our milieu. Right now, we’re on the extreme individual end, which is part of why the unthinkable is happening so regularly and people are murdering strangers to make some kind of personal statement. We’re so polarized that almost every possible choice is seen as a signifier of tribal allegiance, either red or blue, with no alternatives or neutral or non-applicable areas. We don’t trust each other. Our barriers are impermeable. Interactions with other people are high-stakes. We’re now beginning to invoke formal loyalty tests, as in, “if you read this and disagree, sever our social connection. Permanently.” We do not have any kind of social ritual for knee-walking back to someone and asking to reignite the spark of friendship. We don’t accept apologies and we don’t make them graciously. I made a public apology to someone for whom I had high regard; when I saw that she had unfriended me, I cried in my car. Mutual friends relayed my message, which included a description of what I had done wrong and displayed an understanding of the unintentional hurt I had caused. I would never have required such an apology myself, as I ignore posts that offend me. My apology was not accepted. That was years ago, and it still bothers me. What would it have taken? Even a personal attack could theoretically have been forgiven, if acceptable amends were made. It makes no sense to me that we are now disowning people over cartoons or single sentences or perhaps tasteless jokes. When will we start to see how much damage this is causing to our social fabric? When will we start to see how unnecessary this is? When will we learn to adapt to this new, hazardous form of communication? When will the pendulum start to swing the other way?
We can’t make it in this world alone. We like to fantasize that we can. We like the look of a post-apocalyptic landscape, where it’s easy to judge on sight whether someone is “one of us” or “the enemy.” Then we can eliminate them with extreme prejudice, and high-five afterward. The truth is that we’re not capable of survival, speech, or even coherent thought without the contribution of other human beings. We are not the prime movers in our own lives. We are here because our ancestors cooperated long enough to get us here, feed us, care for us, and watch over us until we could start pretending that we can survive without cooperation. We need each other. We forget how much we have to offer each other, how strong we are when we stand together. We have so much to learn about forgiveness and love. We have so much to learn about friendship. How are we going to learn anything if we keep rage-quitting whenever we activate each other’s emotions?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.