My land is bare of chattering folk; the clouds are low along the ridges, and sweet's the air with curly smoke from all my burning bridges.
-- Dorothy Parker
Friendships can end for any number of reasons. This is a natural progression -- people grow apart; it happens all the time. But in some cases, ending a friendship is akin to filing for a divorce: a messy affair, leaving one or both parties slightly singed around the ego. One of the most awkward social situations (second only to the public epiphany that one's partner is cheating) is encountering an ex-friend. It is especially awkward when you and the ex have exchanged colorful shit-talk behind each other's back, which has then been graciously delivered in flames to your doorstep by "well-intentioned" mutual friends.
I'm not so arrogant as to dismiss the notion that others might find me to be intolerable -- in fact, I expect this is the case. I do not blame these people for exercising their right to select their ideal companions. But, as I can only speak for myself, the awkwardness to which I refer is that of running into those ex-friends I cannot abide.
I tried to explain this concept to my friend Ron, after he asked why I wasn't going to another friend's party. The host is a friend, and I was considering my calendar when I noted the e-mail addresses of at least four "undesirables" on the Evite.
"The annoyance of talking to people I don't like trumps this party's potential for fun," I said to Ron. "It's not that I mind, she can invite whomever she wants, it's her party. That doesn't mean I have to go, and I'm not going to knowingly walk into Awkward City. I'll hang out with her another time."
Ever the diplomat, Ron responded, "Well, Barb, sometimes you just have to deal."
I mulled over his words for a moment, and then it hit me: "No, I don't," I said. "I don't have to deal. So I'm not going." It was easy to say and easy to do. I'd rather watch reruns of Hee Haw than chat it up with people who bore, irritate, or outright offend me.
The thing I don't understand is why, when people claim to abhor someone, they continue to spend time with that person. Why rush to greet and embrace the object of our scorn? Because it's "easier"? Because it's less awkward than explaining why we'd rather skip the air kisses and insincere small talk?
I was enjoying myself at a soiree yesterday afternoon, laughing as friends made insightful, mean-spirited jokes about a guy I no longer hang out with (for many of the same reasons we were poking fun at). Then, to my shock and horror, the butt of our jokes appeared at the door.
Through osmosis, keen insight, and gossip, this ex-friend of mine and I are aware of our reciprocal disdain for each other. We offered one another a cordial nod of the head, a passing glance, and quickly turned away to engage in more rewarding, comfortable conversations. But everyone else, who, moments before, had been verbally shredding this guy, rushed in with hugs and smiles. You have no idea , I thought, surprised at the pity I felt for him. These people are pretending, their rapt attention a ruse -- you think they care about what you say. But every word you speak here, every imitate-able gesture, will become a punch line the moment you leave. Then something else occurred to me: which of my words will be mocked upon my departure?
I'd rather be an ex-friend than a fake friend. Sometimes the truth is upsetting, but it wouldn't be so hard to be honest if people accepted that it's natural to not delight in everybody's presence, that our time is ours alone, as is our decision to choose how and with whom we spend it.
Others seem to have a higher tolerance for certain behaviors than I do. Once, I was complaining to my friend Sarah about another friend's actions. After I'd listed the offenses -- a series of examples that painted a picture of gross inconsideration -- Sarah said, "Well, that's just Andrea."
I was stunned. "That's just Andrea?" As if inconsideration and blatant rudeness are physical traits over which we have no responsibility or control? How far does this excuse go? Do we say, "Well, that guy's just an asshole," and continue to hang out with an asshole? When I regained my senses, I said, "Well, That's just Andrea is not invited to That's just Barb and Dave's house ever again, because I just don't have to put up with that kind of shit."
It seems as though many people cling to relationships the way you might hoard old clothes in your closet -- you never wear them, they no longer serve a purpose, yet somehow their presence lends you comfort, and you're loath to get rid of them. But, just like having a closet full of clothes does not mean you have a working wardrobe, having a cell phone full of phone numbers does not mean your life is full of functional friendships.
I used to be one of those people, the quantity-over-quality type, the how-many-guests-show-up-at-my-party-is-directly-proportional-to-how-loved-and-admired-I-am kind. Now, I define my life by the quality of my relationships. More than half of the numbers in my cell phone are only there so that I know which calls not to answer.
Avoiding phone calls and missing parties, however, does not eliminate the existence of ex-friends, which is why it is important to learn the proper etiquette for interacting with them. In my opinion, there needs to be acknowledgment (because pretending the other doesn't exist is silly, if not enervating) and avoidance of small talk.
I learned this the hard way when I tried to make small talk with an ex at a recent event. It's awkward. It's pointless. Neither of us cared what the other had to say, and yet we still -- out of habit or misconception of what was appropriate -- exchanged pleasantries in tones and facial expressions that were most unpleasant. Luckily, it didn't last long; we broke away after what I'm convinced was a simultaneous awareness of the time we were wasting with each other and the numerous people in attendance with whom we'd much rather speak.
The passing of friendships needn't be mourned -- such events are all part of the cycle of social life. As a Navy brat, I moved around a lot as a kid, every few years leaving my school and friendships in one town and socially starting from scratch in another. From this I developed (as a sort of protective mechanism) the ability to part with ease -- I don't feel the need to collect and hang on to people like magazines to be piled in the garage.
I'd rather spend time lavishing care and attention upon those cherished friends whose value to me continues to grow with each passing year. Not only is my life thus enriched, but I am also sparing my exes the discomfort of having to exchange fake pleasantries and force smiles, leaving everyone more time to seek out and nurture the next great friendship.