February 10, 2003    Psychology

Recipe for Good Friendship

As you get older, the nature of your relationships to others gradually changes. You do not relate to your friends in the same way you used to. On one hand, your friendships seem to get shallower because of the time you spend with your family or your significant other, but on the other, they become more enjoyable in many ways. In general, your relationships with others become more reasonable, natural, and sustainable.

Our relationships to each other are quite similar to our relationships to food. There are friends or families whom we see every day, just as there are food items we eat almost every day, like bread. For us to be able to consume them every day, they must have certain qualities that make them suitable for daily consumption. This quality is independent of value. Just because something or someone can be consumed every day, does not mean that it is better, deeper, or more meaningful than any other food items or people.

We tend to assume that friends we see more frequently are better friends, but this is not necessarily the case. I’ve personally had several friends whom I saw virtually every day of my life. Though we had great times together, I had always known deep down that if I were to depend on them for help in a significant way, they would not come through. On the other hand, I had and still have friends whom I rarely see, but can count on to help me for virtually anything. This does not mean that I define the significance of my friendships in terms of the amount of help I can get. Help is only one of many criteria by which one could value friendships, but it happens to be the most common standard by which people value personal relationships.

I have some friends who are entertaining, intriguing, thought-provoking, and/or inspirational, but I can get sick of them if I am exposed to them too much. This too isn’t inherently good or bad. If you eat caviar every day, you will be sick of it, no matter how good it is. When you are young, you tend to make this type of mistake often where you rush to get to know someone and ruin it for yourself.

Some people depend on their friends and families to fill their void inside. They procrastinate for hours in bars, or talk on the phone endlessly. This is equivalent to junk food. You eat junk food not because you need it for its nutritious values, but because of its effect of filling the void.

Some friends are good for parties. Some are good to travel with. Some are good to talk with. Some are good to do business with. Some are good to play games with. Some are good to live with. This also means that there are opposite scenarios where some friends are not suitable for certain occasions. For instance, just because you have fun at parties with Joe, does not mean that he would make a good roommate. Just because you talk to Jane about everything in your life, does not mean that she would make a good business partner. Just as certain types of food are appropriate for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there are certain types of people that are only appropriate for certain situations. Trying to force them out of these natural boundaries will only cause conflicts.

Many people are allergic to certain types of food. Many, for no apparent reason, hate certain styles of cuisine. These incompatibilities are, for the most part, natural, and have no deep-rooted, cultural or psychological reasons. Likewise, if we do not get along with someone, there is no reason why we must deeply contemplate why we don’t get along. When we don’t like someone, we tend to force ourselves to come up with a reason, which usually end up faulting one side or the other. More often than not, it is none’s fault. Forcing yourself to come up with a reason unnecessarily aggravates your relationship.

By looking at the relationship someone has to his food, you can learn much about his personality: open-mindedness, prejudice, discipline, addictive personality, creativity, criticalness, etc.. The following are not by any means definitive formula (simply my own observations), but for instance, those who are nationalistic tend to be also nationalistic in the types of cuisine they eat. I have met some French and Japanese people who would not touch any other cuisines, and they were very nationalistic in their cultural ideals as well. The gourmets who love eating a variety of food tend to be very social, whereas those who eat only within a very limited set of recipes tend to be reclusive. Those who are open-minded in general tend to pop anything into their mouths, and think what it was only after they had already swallowed it.

As you get older and wiser, your relationship to food or to people becomes more natural, i.e., as opposed to artificial, or symbolic. Youths define themselves with symbols. They are not yet in tune with their own natural selves and rush to define their position in the world by symbolic means. They turn everything into a symbol and use it to define their own identities. For instance, brands like Nike, Atari, Sony, and Apple. Musical bands like U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana. Alcohol and drugs, for instance, symbolically play a big part in this process as well. One of the most powerful tools at their disposal to define their own identities is personal relationship.

Personal relationship for youths functions symbolically. The intrinsic value of a relationship is often sacrificed for its symbolic value. For instance, even if you sincerely like someone, if that person does not symbolically represent who you want to be, then you would sacrifice the relationship. This is measured in terms of “cool” and “uncool”. Each quality that you find in another has a symbolic value associated with it. This symbol (someone else’s personality) in turn contributes to building your ideal self-image. You carefully pick and choose these symbols from a variety of people in order to construct your own identity, as if you are helping yourself to a buffet.

A typical manifestation of this process is seen in Hollywood teenage dramas where “cool” kids look beautiful (football players and cheerleaders) and “uncool” kids look ugly (geeks and punks). Most parents, and Hollywood movies, would discourage their kids from judging others based on their looks, and encourage them to judge based on their inner qualities, but the latter is equally misguided. As long as they pursue symbolic identification, their agony will never end.

For instance, even among those who are not “cool” by the Hollywood definition (e.g. kids who are creative or highly intelligent), this process of symbolic identification of self is rampant. Take for instance, young graphic designers who form groups, or “design collectives” with other designers who are deemed equally talented. If you do not meet their standards, you are excluded and snubbed. By grouping with other talented designers they reinforce their own image of being a gifted designer. As long as the process of exclusion is based on inner qualities, they think it is a good thing.

Symbolic identification is also the reason why youths are highly judgmental of others. Say, John likes certain aspects of Dave’s personality. Let’s call these aspects A, B, and C. A, for instance, could be his musical talent. B, his sense of humor. C, his charm. These are the qualities that John wished he had, or he himself has and happy about. However, there are also aspects of Dave’s personality that John doesn’t like, say, D and E. D could be his upbringing as a son of a wealthy family. E could be his egotistical tendencies. By association, A, B, and C of Dave’s personality symbolically contribute to John’s self-image. They either reinforce the image he already has of himself, or they fill in some of the missing items. But, the unfortunate side-effect of this association is that D and E come with it. Since he benefits from the association of good aspects, he also becomes guilty by the association of bad aspects. Since John treasures Dave’s A, B, and C, he is torn apart, and wishes that Dave didn’t have D and E. This wish often manifests confrontationally.

This effect of symbolic association is strongest with family members, and this is why most kids dread having their parents around their friends. Any negative qualities found in their parents are associated undeniably with them. This process of symbolic identification and association demands perfection, because when you are insecure, the last thing you need is a reminder of your own flaw, shortcoming, or undesired trait. The outcome of the struggle to perfect your own self-image is largely dependent on the people you associate yourself with. So, their business becomes your own business, and there is a reason why you must nag your friends and families to change. This is how your relationships with others become artificial and forced, and, in turn, conflictive and painful.

Just as you should eat because you are hungry, or because you truly enjoy it, you should also relate to others because it is natural. It would be silly to drink Guinness just because it might make you look cool. Drink it if you truly enjoy it. Don’t drink it every day, if that makes you feel sick of it. The same goes for people. Enjoy the company of others for what it is. Don’t use it as something else. Don’t try to make it do what it is not meant to do. Don’t force yourself to enjoy it. The more you know yourself, the less it matters who you associate yourself with, and the more enjoyable people will become.