Aug 2, 2008

Lifestyle - When did you last use? your friend?

It really kills me to write this for it goes against everything I believe in — about friendship and the class system. But after much deliberation, I have come to accept the sorry truth about friendships, and it is this: After a certain age, pretty much after college, most of our friendships are class-based. Most of us end up hanging around people who are “like us”.

There are exceptions. There are executives who will cut across class and professional lines and socialize with, say, school teachers — noble profession, but let’s face it, not so well paying. But for the most part, the rich hang around other rich people (or sycophants); the middle class socializes with others like them; and…you get the picture.
I am sort of stunned by my conclusion because I am one of those suckers who believe in the “purity” of friendships; that the only rule for friendships is that the other person “gets” you with all your quirks and eccentricities and you have fun together. For me to conclude that middle-aged friendships are class-based is heresy. But there it is: my theory. You can stop reading now.
I am not a cynic. If anything, I am the opposite. So let me explain how I came to this conclusion. Many things dictate our friendships, but after living in three cultures, I believe that geography is a key element. Although many of us maintain long-distance friendships, it is not the same thing as having friends within the same city.
So there you are, living in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. You make friends: at work, and near your home (geography again). Other friends introduce you to cool people and you make more friends. Now, I ask you: Tell me honestly, are your friends people like you? Are they all professional, roughly in the same economic bracket and with similar personal concerns? My guess is that your answer is yes. And why not? In order to do things together with friends, whether it is eating out or vacationing together, you have to be on the same page with respect to many things, but also budget.
Tomorrow is World Friendship Day, which is what got me started on this in the first place. Unlike childhood friendships, which operate in a tabula rasa, friendships in today’s global world are complicated. For instance, most people believe that you should not “use” your friends, whatever that means. But I find that I am doing this all the time: I call them for contacts; ask them for recommendations; call in favours. So I’ve decided to scratch that notion. Like it or not, I use my friends.
Then there is the whole business of “networking”. We are told to network and develop a circle of friends who can then be tapped for information and advice when needed. But professional networks aren’t friendships. You can network with people you don’t like; but you can’t stay friends with people you dislike.
I used to think that friendships are lifelong. I have a slightly different view now. With so many of us moving towns and travelling often, I find that friendships may last a lifetime but their strength depends on geography. A dear friend just moved to Hong Kong. I know that my affection for her will continue, but I also know that we will drop out of touch. I used to think this was a tragedy. Nowadays I accept it as a fact of life.
Someone told me that the older you get, the fewer new friends you make. I disagree. I have lived in Bangalore for three years now and have made new friends. What has changed is the profile of my friendships. I used to hang out with a variety of people; now all my friends are of the same texture. I used to have a lot of gay friends but finding them in Bangalore (particularly if you are enmeshed in the kiddie carpool wagon) is turning out to be a bit of a problem. And when I do find people with opposite views, I hang on to them.
Where do you set your bar for friendship? Mine is pretty high. In order to call someone a friend, I feel that I should be able to pick up the phone and call her or him anytime. Without thinking; without hesitating. That’s pretty tough to achieve when you are dealing with busy professionals. But not impossible.
Getting into a routine with people you like has been my method. One of my closest friends in Bangalore is a cross-cultural trainer named Gauri. We used to carpool together every day for a year; that turned out to be the bulwark of our friendship. I don’t see her often anymore but she is someone I can call anytime.
Meeting once a month, I have found, is a fantastic formula for friendship. Going out for drinks; getting a pedicure together; or attending a book club are all good ways of nurturing friendships. Saying “No” is another.
I was once a victim of the party trap. Some acquaintance would invite me to a party and I would feel obligated to attend. This grew and grew to a point where I was party-hopping four times a week. I knew a lot of people and had a hectic social life but somehow it felt empty at the end of the night. Things are different now. As my professor, Leonard DeLonga, who hung out with his wife, a potter, every evening said: “I have a great social life. I am just choosy about my social partners.”
Vacationing together is a great (albeit frustrating) way to maintain friendships. As I speak I am trying to coordinate a vacation with our friends from Singapore. Simply matching holiday schedules is a challenge. But we persist because we know it will be fun in the end.

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