Monday, October 8, 2012
The Costs of Friendship
I've been dealing with a lot of anger and depression lately. It's been keeping me up nights; I spend the whole day struggling to stay busy, reading, playing games, trying to get a few useful things done, and I mostly am ok. Then the night hits, and I turn off the lights, and close my eyes, and the anger takes hold. Sometimes I'm so furious I want to scream, to throw things, to tear my hair out. Sometimes I just hurt, and it's like a wound under my solar plexus that aches and bleeds and never heals. Sometimes I think about hurting myself, although it's not something I'm likely to ever act on. I've considered writing about it a number of times, usually at 5 am, around the time I realize I'm not sleeping at all that night. However, I ultimately keep deciding not to. I think that's been the wrong decision, so here goes.
One of the perennially screwed up dynamics in most geek social circles is the emphasis put on transitive, absolute, unconditional friendship. These are widely known as geek social fallacies, and I have yet to interact with a geeky circle that doesn't embrace some or all of them. The circle I spent the most time with for most of my adult life embraces a few fairly comprehensively; in that group, (which I will simply call "the circle") everyone is expected and required to pretend to like everyone else, whether or not they do. There is a strong belief that members of the circle would do anything to help a friend (ie. other member of the circle) in the same way that most people would help a member of their own family.
All of these things seem positive on the surface. After all, how could it be bad to be nice to each other? What harm is there in making everyone feel included, whether you like them in and individual, personal sense or not? Even if you dislike someone, how does it do any harm to pretend you don't in order to avoid rocking the boat?
Before I go any further, I want to make something clear: there are a number of people in the circle whom I love, and whose friendship I cherish. They've stood by me through some very rough times, and I appreciate that. There are also a large number of people in the circle whom I've never been close to, who've never done me any harm, and whom I think are perfectly nice. This is in no way a condemnation of any of them, or really of anyone. Even the people I'm currently angry at (and I am angry) generally haven't done me any intentional harm; it's the group dynamic more than the individual people that I think is problematic.
Everybody Loves You (Sometimes)
About a month and a half ago, I helped a friend get out of an abusive relationship. The circle's reaction to her leaving, and to my helping her was both unreasonable and upsetting. This group of people who always claim they'd do anything to help a friend faulted me for actually adhering to that principle. They did this because the other person involved was also a member of the circle, and the breakup put them in the inconvenient position of having to consider whether one of their friends might have done something deeply wrong. They clearly didn't want to face this possibility. Instead, I was told that the way I helped wasn't fair to him, that he had the right to a final confrontation, that she was wrong to leave him without giving him a chance to respond, as though his right to yell at her one last time was more important than her right to not be abused. It was implied that she needed proof of his bad behavior in order to be believed, despite his long standing reputation for a bad temper, and that only physical abuse really counted.
I've seen this reaction before. When I left my husband, I didn't talk very much about his abuse, and it was largely to avoid rocking the boat. God forbid my decade of misery make people uncomfortable at poker night. I tried to remain friends with him, convinced that it was somehow the right thing to do, despite the many ways in which he'd harmed me. I was encouraged in this; everyone told me how wonderfully I was behaving. It didn't occur to them that it might be doing me serious harm. When I finally did talk about it, finally stopped speaking to him, people found reasons to ignore it or dismiss what I had to say, as I was well aware they would. They liked him, and therefore anything I said needed to be sublimated, reduced to "oh well, it was a bad relationship for them both".
The one time I tried to leave my husband, I went to stay with friends in this circle. When I told them he hit me, they said they'd "talk to him". When they did, they told him they "knew I was hard to live with", but that hitting me was wrong. Let me be clear here: my ex husband didn't just hit me. He was verbally, emotionally, and sexually abusive as well. He did me significant harm. However, apparently the fact that I'm a slob and wanted him to maybe not drink a bottle of gin every night justified all but the worst of his behavior to them. In fairness, they didn't know about all of it; I was ashamed to say how often he'd hit me, afraid that they wouldn't believe me because I'm larger than he is. I didn't even understand some of the sexual abuse as abuse; when I told him I wasn't interested and he did what he wanted to anyway, I thought that was part of being in a relationship, felt like I didn't have the right to say no. It was only the one time that he was drunk and violent about it and I had the courage to actually refuse that I understood it as attempted rape, and not just more bad sex.
Even writing this now is hard. I know people will be angry at me for talking about it, for the harm it might do to him (although I haven't named him here), and that some will choose not to believe me, because it's easier than seeing the truth. I can't stop them from doing that, but I can say that it sucks. I can say that a circle where everyone is your friend unless you really need help, a circle where you have to hide the horrible things that are happening to you because no one will believe you, is ultimately a circle where you have very few friends indeed.
Sometimes a Friend Isn't A Friend
Another serious problem comes from the belief that everyone in the circle has to be friends with everyone else, whether they actually like them or not. The spectrum of socially acknowledged responses to other members of the circle is constricted to a ridiculous point, until it only includes like, love and (ironically) hate. It's not simply that you're not supposed to mildly dislike other members of the circle; it's that the possibility that you might is not acknowledged. Should you express such a mild dislike, it's considered worse than actual, virulent hatred.
For example, there is a couple in the circle whom I've never really gotten along with. I don't hate them; I simply don't like them either, and would rather avoid spending time with them. I don't dislike them because they're bad people; they don't regularly drown kittens or feed orphans gruel. In fact, I think they're fairly good people, overall. I merely avoid them because they rub me the wrong way and make me slightly uncomfortable; it's a personality thing. Outside of the circle, that's perfectly acceptable; people have a right to choose their friends. Inside the circle, it's considered petty and judgmental. Who am I to decide that I like one person and not another?
Now, obviously this is frustrating for the person who has committed the great sin of unliking, but as someone who's been on both sides of it, I can say with certainty that it's also unpleasant and confusing for the person who is mildly disliked. The best case scenario is one where the dislike is mutual, as I believe it was between myself and the couple I mentioned. Everyone involved feels somewhat uncomfortable, but no one gets hurt. The real problem comes when the dislike is not mutual. Outside the circle if you don't like someone there are straightforward cues you can give them that let them know you don't want to engage with them. There are kinder and meaner ways of doing it, but in general it's fairly easy to be clear about your disinterest.
In the circle (which is composed of geeks, many of whom aren't great at signals in any case), those cues are muffled by the pressure to be friends with everyone. This leads to a shallow kind of group "friendship" where everyone is nice to everyone else, like them or loathe them. Because of this, it's easy to end up in the awkward position of trying to more particularly befriend someone who doesn't particularly like you but isn't allowed to say so or indicate it in any obvious way. Until you figure out what's going on, the experience is frustrating, and once you have done so it is embarrassing. After all, no one wants their friendship to be an imposition. Being a mildly awkward geek girl, I've been in that situation a number of times, and have generally been mortified to realize that my offer of friendship was so completely unwelcome.
Nice is Not Kind
Geeks in general and the circle in particular have a tendency to conflate the idea of being nice with that of being kind. What I mean by kindness is treating others with respect and consideration, whether they're particularly your friends or not. What I mean by niceness is putting a pleasant face on things, whether they're pleasant or not. Kindness is being gentle when you let someone know you don't want to hang out with them. Niceness is pretending you like someone even though you don't because you don't want to seem mean. We're all guilty of being merely nice instead of kind sometimes. We're taught it from a young age: it's nice to invite all of the children to your birthday party, even if you don't want some of them to come. It's not nice to bring a treat unless you can share it with everyone.
Most people eventually come to understand that niceness is a way of emulating or teaching kindness, not an end in itself. However, the circle and many other social groups like it have made it into an ultimate value. Niceness becomes toxic when being nice becomes more important than kindness. It isn't nice to choose between your friends, so many members of the circle bend over backwards to believe that all bad relationships are cases of mutual fault rather than acknowledging that one partner might actually have done something wrong. It becomes a problem when everyone's determination to be nice harms a person who's actually been abused or leaves people who don't fit the group well wondering why they have so many acquaintances and so few real friends.
I don't fit the circle very well, or rather it doesn't really fit me. I have some very good friends there whom I love as individuals, but the group as a whole feels weird and constraining to me. I feel a bit like an octagonal peg in a round hole; I fit in the slot, but it never quite works. That's not anyone's fault; I'm a loud, individualistic, opinionated person who is not willing to change who I am to fit the group dynamic. That makes me a hard fit in any group. However, the reason that it took me so long to realize it was the overwhelming niceness of the group. Because everyone always seemed to like me (and everyone else), it was hard for me to understand how few of them actually cared for me. That discovery has been a slow and painful process. I don't fault any individual for this; again, it's the group dynamic. That said, I do think that if the circle and groups like it devoted less energy to being nice and more energy to being kind, everyone would benefit.