Neil Tambe

Husband, Father, Citizen, Professional.

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Making friends, building community

My friend JBC sent a few of us an interesting article from the New York Times yesterday about the difficulty about making friends after 30.

Overall, the basic rationale for why it's difficult to make friends later in life, makes sense. Here's a clip from the article:

In studies of peer groups, Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, observed that people tended to interact with fewer people as they moved toward midlife, but that they grew closer to the friends they already had.

Basically, she suggests, this is because people have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. “You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you,” she said, “so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.”

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

I don't think focusing on relationships that matter most is scornful, either. What does seem like a miss on the part of the journalist, however, is the way the issue is framed. It presents friendship as something someone should pursue for only their own benefit and neglects the importance of building new relationships as a community imperative.

Let me explain.

The way the interviewees/author of the article present the construct friendship is that you do what makes sense for you.  You mix in people that fill gaps in your life. You put forward the effort to make friends as long as its what you want and what feels good to you.

Which is sensible. Like I said before, I don't think it's unreasonable to put forth effort in certain types of relationships or relationships with certain people.

I think we should push ourselves harder, though. If we extend the idea of being friends with people because it's what we want or benefits us, it probably takes us to a place where there are people who are in a "friends deficit". It probably leads to have fragmented communities and less-than-vibrant neighborhoods.

I think it takes a little extra effort on everyone's part to make sure people aren't left out.  A little investment into the community bank, if you will.  If we don't make an effort to create new relationships, people who aren't already plugged-in will be left out.  This could be people from all the scenarios the author mentioned - someone who moved to a new place, a recent divorcee, or many other life transitions which cause friendships to reset.

Being a person that's constantly alone - I travel for work all the time - I'd be miserable if other people didn't make the effort to try to make a new, random, friend. My parents also have to live separately for work (My dad lives in California because of a job) so I've also seen first hand the devastating effects of going to a place and not having friends - maybe not even friends, just other people that you can lean on for support - later in life. I'm really thankful for people who are okay with meeting someone new, even if it's just in passing.

I also think we'll all be in a place at some point in our lives where we have a deficit of friends. For that reason, I think it's important to think of friendships as more than just an individual concern, but as a community investment that we should all make - we'll probably all be beneficiaries of someone who doesn't have to be friends with us but does, someday. 

It also just seems like the right thing to do. If we're healthy and happy, why not take a little extra energy to affirm someone else new who may not be totally healthy and happy?

For the record, I'm not suggesting we all spread ourselves so thin to the point of not having deep relationships with a small group of people. What I am suggesting is that we always try to make an effort (with time, or letting our guard down, etc.) to invest in new relationships that help keep communities connected and vibrant...even if it's not always easy.