N.B. This is a “middle of the night can’t sleep waffle”. You have been warned.
The English language is one of the most expressive languages on Earth. The other day, I had the following conversation with someone. ‘How is your shoulder?’ ‘Better, but not better, thanks for asking’. Two meanings within just one word, both easily understood and distinguished. What a marvellously nuanced language.
And yet we say that we “make a friend”. Really? “Make”? From scratch? The act of creation? Producing something where there was little or nothing before? Surely we don’t really “make” a friend? We can acquire a friend, attract one, develop one, find one, borrow one, even, but do we really make it from nothing? Do you have a single friend you have truly bonded with with whom you had absolutely no prior link whatsoever?
If I look at my address book, in no particular order (before people start getting huffy (!)), I can sort my friends into groups as follows. Our connections are based upon:
Lived next door to/ opposite; (Nora, Kris and Rich and Sel, Julie);
Worked at the same radio station as (Fiona, Monique);
Worked at the same office as (Abbi, Kam, Richard, Tony, Jackie, Eve);
Worked at the same library as (Irene);
Was in the same class/school as (Ros, James, April, David);
Follow the same comedian as (Ian and Paula, Gio, Emma, Judy, Clare, Sam);
Travelled on the same ship as (Simon and Guy, Hayley and John, Charles and Louise, Enid and Ann, etc.);
Once sat in the computer room next to (Matt);
Once sat on the train opposite (Jolene);
Frequented the same cafe as (Jerome);
Learned from (Janet and Pete);
Met through mutual friends/ acquaintances (Jon, Simon, Angie, Bethan, Oli, Ed, Anna, Alexander, Denise);
Researched families from the same town as (Mayer);
Relatives of friends who became friends in their own right (Tia, Mo, June, Neil, Mike and Kate, Jen, Roger and Jean, David and Jean, Alice, Holly, Karl, Stephen, Vicki, Elliot, Zen, Connor, Laura, Nick);
Relatives who became friends (Tali, Ellen, Eryl and Rob, Fran, Stewart and Julie, Judi and Jerry);
However tenuous the link – Jolene and I met on the train going home on the day both of us lost our jobs – there is a link. It’s not random. It’s not created from scratch. It’s not “made”. It’s not born out of nothingness. There was something there, however infinitesimally small, to start with.
Granted, friendships need work (some more than others!), but the above fifty-odd entries constitute the entire contents of my current address book. If you’re not listed, I don’t have your address! Send it to me at once! Tut.
I have just finished reading Connected by Nicolas A. Christakis, MD, PhD and James H. Fowler, PhD, about the mathematics and the logic of social networks. Not Facebook or MySpace per se, but the networks we form in our everyday lives. The premise being, perhaps unsurprisingly, that we are all connected.
Whilst I have already personally proven to you that six degrees of separation is a genuine thing – we are all connected to virtually everyone on the face of the Earth in around six jumps – (for those feeling blank, please go back to the Archive and search January 2010) I can find surprisingly few connections between my friends as listed above. My Facebook friends are even more disparate, including staff at hotels I have lived in (how alarming that that is a plural), cruise ship staff and ex-staff and various other, more tenuous connections still, such as other Emma Freemans, other M.E. and diabetes sufferers and one or two even vaguer links I’m not sure I can even recall.
The seemingly unconnected nature of the above list of friends is very good from the six degrees of separation point of view, particularly as they cross several oceans (if only I had an address for Lou in Bali!), but it strikes me that very few of my friends know each other. Is that odd? Is that normal? Christakis and Fowler don’t seem to think so, and it has me slightly worried. If anything happened to me, how would all these people, who don’t know each other from Adam, pass the news round? Particularly since not one of them knows my Facebook password to change my status for me in my absence, and anyway, they don’t all use Facebook!
So what draws us to a person? What makes a chance link into a friendship? Just because I sat next to Matt in the computer cluster one day in the early 1990s, there was no reason for us to start talking to each other. In the five years that I studied full-time at Leeds, I must have sat next to several hundred people in half a dozen different computer rooms, and I don’t still follow their blogs eleven years later. In fact, I never even went to the cinema with any one of them, but Matt.
For what it’s worth, what we talked about on the day we met was how slow the University’s internet connection was (1T!), while we watched my Netscape satellite rotate seemingly endlessly around the planet (for those of you who don’t understand that clause, I’m sorry, you’re just too young) and how to get a Unix address (Matt telling me) in order to get a faster connection (like his) and more storage. I needed more storage to receive emails from Dena (who isn’t listed because I don’t have her new address, but she comes under the relatives list), who needed to send large files across from Ethiopia, where she lived at the time. In the end, I got the account (boy, was it a complicated process!) but she never sent me any files in the end and I never once logged into the account. So my opportunity to learn Linux was lost, but I gained Matt as a friend. I even remember where I was when he told me he was in love with Vicki, who in turn became a good friend (I even sang at their wedding), although his blog is currently our only link. In my defence, do you know how hard it is to get to Driffield?! Look it up. They live in the middle of bleeding nowhere!
But Matt and Vicki have never, to my knowledge, met Dena, or anyone else listed above. Although I think there is a mutual friend connection with someone on Facebook, if I recall. Leeds University wasn’t THAT big.
So that’s just one example. I could list them all, but you’d get bored long before I got tired of talking/ typing. But in my first year, there were nine people who shared my flat with me – only Julie stuck. In my last year, there were another nine – only Nora remains. And my best friend from my school days, Petra, doesn’t appear at all.
I had drinks and chat with Joan and Colin tonight. We met on the dog sledding trip and hit it off immediately. We have virtually nothing in common – they’re grandparents with thin bodies, great tans and a naughty sense of humour and I’m… not. Except for the sense of humour part. And that’s our link. We make each other laugh. We have a great time together, night after night. We never run out of things to say or talk about and we almost never disagree about anything, because we have a similar way of looking at the world.
This also what binds the biggest group listed above: Ian and Paula, Gio, Emma, Judy, Clare and Sam, who along with Dave and Alan, whose addresses I do not have, form the remnants of the Gorum. We all met through a mutual love of the humour of Dave Gorman. That’s it. That’s what connects us. Some live in South Wales or near it, some live in the South East of England, Gio and Sam both live somewhere in the middle, but what connects us is humour. We laugh at the same stuff and see the world in a similar way. And we are all passionate about misuse and abuse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I’ve even listed their kids, because we all get on so well (and they are four of the most devastatingly intelligent and articulate young adults you will ever meet – quite intimidating at times, frankly).
Is that it? Is that what connects me to all of the people above? Do they make me laugh? Do I make them laugh? Do we laugh at the same stuff in the same way? Probably not all of them and probably not always. But it is certainly a powerful link if you do laugh at the same things and see things similarly. And yet it is by no means essential. There are people in that list who don’t get my sense of humour AT ALL, but they are still good friends.
Interestingly, or maybe not, interesting to me at least, there is no one there who was in my class at school, there is no one there from my five years as a Girl Guide, there is no one there from either of my music colleges. Neither is there anyone left from my second degree; although I thought I had made at least two lasting friendships, neither survived the physical separation of real life. There is not a soul from the longest job I ever held, neither is there anyone from my place of worship. And none of my current neighbours appear either. In fact, I’m not even sure I know their names. And there’s only six flats in my block in the first place, so it’s not like it’s a lot of names to learn or bonds to form. In fact, I’ve only met two of them and that was only because there was a power cut.
What decides whether a friendship survives or not? Is it just about effort? When I lost touch with those two friendships from Birkbeck, was it my fault for not staying in touch more? Or theirs? Or did we simply not have enough in common to keep us going when real life got in the way? My mum is still making arrangements to meet up with people she met fifty years ago. Will any of my friendships last that long? Will Joan and Colin fall similarly by the wayside once I get home? Will Ann and Enid? I certainly hope not, but I’ve been wrong before. It is much harder to keep in touch with people who don’t use email or Facebook, but it shouldn’t be impossible, should it? Have we/I become so lazy with all our modern communications that we/I can’t/won’t/don’t pick up the phone any more or write a letter?
Well, I’ve typed four pages of text, and killed a couple of the wee small hours, but I’m none the wiser as to what makes a friendship, let alone a lasting one. I still have more questions than answers. If you have any opinions or ideas that might help me, please do let me know!