Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Question of Friendship

One interesting characteristic of children is the fact that they seem to make friends and enemies on a rather extreme level. Inherently children get along with one another remarkably well ignoring some of the hallmarks that keep adults apart such as ethnicity, race and intellect. However, when one child wrongs another and no prior strong relationship exists, they seem to form a very powerful dislike for each other that is difficult to reverse in the short-term. How is it that when individuals become adults this grudge trait seems to persist, yet this inherent acceptance trait is abandoned? Also why is it that one five-year old can approach another five-year old with no prior relationship or information and they can become friends, yet it is more difficult for two twenty-one year olds to do the exact same thing?

There are two important issues to address when determining the apparent change in difficulty and willingness to making friends from childhood to adulthood. Interestingly enough simplicity plays a role in both issues. First, for children it appears that the defining act, which starts a friendship, is much easier than for adults. For example when one child gives a cookie to another child the probability that those two children become friends is much higher than the probability that two adults become friends under the same conditions. One explanation for this event is children have much simpler lives and worldviews than adults and do not tend to over-analyze events and situations. To the child receiving the cookie it is just a kind gesture with no pretense of ulterior motive. In a similar situation to the adult receiving the cookie, such an action has the tendency to be analyzed in the context of why would this stranger give me a cookie, what does this person have to gain from such an action, what do I lose by accepting the cookie, etc. So the adult looks at the cookie as not just a cookie, but as a potential means to an end where the end may not necessarily be friendship.

Second, selection of individuals one may want as a friend seems to increase in complexity on an exponential level as we age. Children tend not to put much thought into the attributes and characteristics of their friends, just the fact that they have friends. In contrast adults seem to define certain characteristics that they want in their friends and those that do not have those characteristics they do not approach with an offer of friendship. Sadly enough some very superficial elements are sometimes included in these defining characteristics.

A child's naivety also plays a role in this approach analysis. Children tend not to care about immutable characteristics such as race and ethnicity, but adults, who one could argue should be even less concerned about such trivial things, place more importance on such issues. For example, look at most interracial high schools and other educational environments during free periods such as lunch. Most of the time white students eat with other white students, black students eat with other black students, Latino students eat with other Latino students and so forth. Normally individuals only cross these racial/ethnic lines when they have some long-standing relationship with others from when they are children or if they have some strong universal interests, like membership in a club or sports team. Why are these elements needed for person A to eat with person B when most of the time their only differences are trivial and irrelevant?

One possible explanation may be related to self-importance. As people age individuals have a tendency to believe, whether true or not, that less ‘free’ time exists. Thus if time is devoted to an unfamiliar individual, there exists the need for justification that the time spent was worth it, that there will be some benefit that arises out of using time for this interaction. Unfortunately when considering benefits in respect to costs, human beings look more at short-term gain or instant gratification when evaluating the benefits of a situation. Therefore, although forming another friendship may be beneficial in the long run, for most people if a short-term benefit to this potential friendship is not available then they believe there is no good reason to utilize their time to establish and nurture this potential friendship.

It is somewhat interesting that the same people who refuse to utilize twenty to thirty minutes of their time to make a new friend or decide to run a red light to save one minute on the road elect to sleep for nine and a half to ten hours each day wasting time in sleep instead of ‘wasting’ time when awake. Note that it is unrealistic for an individual to frequently attempt to make new friends on a daily basis on a simple efficiency scale as with anything else in existence, but the complete lack of effort itself is questionable.

Another explanation to why person A and person B do not simply try to become friends may simply be fear. The primary element that prevents both friendship and more romantic relationships from forming is a simple fear of rejection. No one likes to be rejected at anything because rejection is basically someone telling you that you are not good enough. Unfortunately some handle rejection by generating some level of justification for counter rejecting the individual who rejected him/her. One could logically attack the concept of rejection with a simple best-worst case scenario analysis. For example what is the best result from person A asking person B to be his/her friend? Person B accepts and they become friends. Realistically the worst case is that person A and person B do not become friends. Compare this set of responses to the best and worst results from not asking in the first place, both results are the same, person A and person B do not become friends.

Dry logic demonstrates that one should ask because its worst case matches both cases from not asking; in contrast the best case when asking generates the best result. A skeptic would cite that this initial analysis does not incorporate any possible emotional damage from the rejection when asking for friendship and failing, damage that does not occur when not asking. It is this emotional damage from rejection that produces the apprehension to act. The real question is: is this emotional damage genuine or simply a after-effect of a lack of understanding?

Certain situations of rejection involve only a limited number of openings for a given opportunity due to either financial or occupancy constraints be it a job or something else where some applicants will not be accepted. In these situations certain individuals clearly do not meet some criteria and thus it could be argued those who are not accepted are not good enough. However, there is no inherent ceiling for the number of friends an individual can have. So if one were to adjust the mindset of rejection it would be easier to approach others in effort to facilitate friendships. If person B declines person A's offer of friendship person A does not need to believe that they are not worthy because person B has limited to no information about person A.

Instead in such a situation person B rejects person A based on person B’s own defining characteristics, not on the personality characteristics of person A. As long as person A does not inappropriately characterize person B as a racist or something else solely based on the rejection, neither person should feel bad about the incident, just acknowledge that an opportunity for a new friend was lost. The negative effect of rejection is meaningless if one neutralizes the self-deprecating feelings regarding undesirable character traits. Basically that is just a fancy way of saying ‘do not take it personally because it is not personal thus taking it personally is irrational’. Therefore, there should be no emotional damage from the rejection.

As alluded to above one of the chief elements that might prevent person B from accepting person A's offer is that fact that person B does not know anything about person A. Without any knowledge of person A's personality person B may not think that they would have anything in common or acquire any benefit from such a relationship and the friendship would not be worth the effort. Although it is true that friendships formation is easier between individuals with commonalities, human beings are not static, but dynamic. There is no reason to assume that even if two people do not have anything in common to start their friendship that no commonality will be found in the future. So it is rather foolish not to accept a potential friendship on the grounds that there may be no common ground due to lack of knowledge.

One final significant element that may prevent person B from accepting person A's offer is the general 'creepiness' of a stranger just coming up to another stranger and requesting they be friends. Although there could be situations were it would be wise to be wary of such behavior, there is only a small probability that the individual has negative motivation. For instance at one time most people thought things like body piercing and eyebrow threading were 'creepy', but now both are accepted as valid practices. So to some extent if people were more active in pursuing friends, the 'creepiness' factor would diminish somewhat. Note this is not advocating that individuals simply walk around their neighborhoods asking any stranger on the street to be their friends, but simply questioning what really prevents people from doing so with an increased frequency.

Finally with all of this talk about friendship, what really defines friendship? When stripping it down to its core friendship can be defined as two individuals that care about each other and make themselves available to assist one another on a physical and emotional level even when one individual may not be in the best position to assist either because of available resources or personality. Friendship moves beyond simple altruism because if an individual helps another on altruistic grounds the assistance is more duty based. True friends are grateful for assistance given to them by their friends, but also are not so naïve that they expect their friends to always be there to provide assistance and support. Friends understand each other especially on an emotional and psychological level to the point where they can anticipate problems due to changes in behavior. So why again are people hesitant to have more friends?

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