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Friday, August 17, 2012

My latest hypothesis about friendship

This year, I turn 21. During the two decades of my existence, I believe I've learned a few things about the world, about how things work and what makes them work that way. Practical things like shouting at people doesn't get them to agree, putting your cigarette butt in a dustbin might just end up burning down the housedon't run with scissors, and always check the URL before clicking on a link if you don't want to get Rick Roll'd

Some of these things I learned at school, some of them I learned through experience. Even then, inexplicably, all the schooling and experience I've had haven't brought me to a conclusion about friendship. You'd think that they'd teach you something as fundamental as this in kindergarten, but it turns out that it's too complex for preschoolers to grasp. In the last few years, I've had some great friendships, some that have lasted, some that just discretely faded away, and some that turned terribly sour, only to leave a bitter-sweet after-taste. 

Rather than just roll my tongue around in my mouth savouring the after-taste of friendships gone bad, I've spent time thinking about what makes people friends, and why they come and go, and now I'm going to share my latest hypothesis about friendship with you:

We only befriend someone if we believe that the friendship will benefit us in some way, and we stop being friends once that benefit ends.


Take a minute now to reread that, process it, and form your own opinions about it. You might not agree, but allow me elucidate. First, let's look at why we might become friends with someone:
  •  We see them a lot in our daily interactions (school, work, hobbies)
  • We have things in common with them 
  • We find them interesting
There are plenty of other reasons as well, but most of them boil down to the ones above. If we examine these motivations closely, we'll find that each of them present a benefit to ourselves. I don't find this very surprising though, now that I think about it, because as humans, we are driven after all, by the instinct to survive, so quite naturally, most of the things we do are in pursuit of self-preservation and self-improvement.

The first motivation for friendship as shown above is the basis of most of the friendships we form, especially earlier on in life: our friends in kindergarten, from school and from the neighbourhood - people who became friends by virtue of their proximity and presence in our daily life. This holds true in adulthood as well: we befriend our coworkers, housemates, coursemantes, neighbours, buisness partners and so on. This is natural of course, since we makes friends, or at least try to, in every group we're a part of. And this behaviour is motivated largely by our need, as social creatures, to have friends. We need friends for our well being, for safety, for comfort and support, for our entertainment and for pleasure. For our benefit.

This might seem all terribly wrong and selfish in the beginning, but if we continue along this line of reasoning for just a little longer, we might see that it's not so absurd. Consider, for example, that in any one place at any one period of time in our life, we only have a handful of friends that we keep in close contact with and whom we truly care about. This is due to natural physical limits that constrain us all; we only have so much time and energy to care for ourselves and others so we have to be selective about whom we choose to care about. Since this choice is quite an important one (it is after all, a choice which affects our wellbeing, safety, comfort and entertainment), it follows that we do filter through the people we know to pick out our friends. We choose those who most make us feel safe, whom we feel the most comfortable around, and who please us the most. And what's more, once we've found enough of these friends, about a handful to a dozen or so, we stop making new ones. This too, is quite natural, as once we've satisfied our needs we need to conserve our resources. Once in a while, we'll exchange our friends for new, sometimes better ones, always looking out for the best for ourselves. 

Working in the same place as someone or living in the same neighbourhood as them means that we'll have frequent contact with them, but it also means that we have something in common in them: "we live in this neighbourhood together, so we have to look out for public safety together", or "we work in this shitty company together, and we have the same lousy boss". Instantly, we find common ground, we have someone whom we can talk to so we can maintain our sanity, we know people who also have to work on public holidays whom we can commiserate and feel sorry and sulky together with.

For these reasons, it happens sometimes that when the things we have in common disappear, so does the friendship. Friends you make at the gym or playing chess might stop being your friends when you stop going to the gym and playing chess, for example. For these reasons also, it shouldn't come as a surprise or even an offence if a former friend from primary school can't come up with something to say to you when you bump into them in the supermarket 15 years later.

Finally, we only make friends with people who interest us and manage to catch our fancy. We care for these people because they give us a reason to care about them: you're pleased when they're pleased, you're well if they are, and so you keep them going to keep yourself going. And that's that - my hypothesis about friendship which all boils down to one thing: self-preservation. 

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