Friendship Day: A deep dive into complicated relationships

Ahead of Friendship Day on August 7, we take a look at the shifting nature of bonds between individuals and how they cannot be taken for granted


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 4 Aug 2022, 11:36 PM

“It’s the friends you can call up at 4am that matter,” is a quote famously attributed to Marlene Dietrich. But I’d be really irritated if a friend called me at 4am (unless I’m having a sleepless night): she — or he — better have a very, very good reason to wake me up… I mean, definitely not to say, “I felt like chatting.” Then again, Marlene uttered the line in the context of a particular era. These days, most of us have our phones ‘on silent’ in the dark of the night — that’s what doctors and therapists advise anyway — and wouldn’t even know if someone is trying to jolt us out of slumber, even if it’s for a very good reason.

The problem with purple prose is that it imposes unrealistic expectations on friendships: Friends will always have your back, come what may, and never backstab. Their love is unconditional, and there’s no petty politics in the form of give-and-take. There are no judgements drawn ever because we, the circle of friends, inhabit a class-less and ‘amoral’ realm.

There’s no competitiveness, only encouragement. For the most part, that’s bunkum. Social media and the pandemic may have disrupted the all-round relationships’ space, but friendships have borne the brunt of it.

Every second person I meet nowadays says, “Oh, I’m not really in touch with so-and-so, we WhatsApp once in a while.” Hearts and hugs and other tender emojis are reserved for Facebook walls. I am part of an all-girls WhatsApp group. While we lived in different countries, every group conversation would end with “Can’t wait for us to get back together!”

Weekend getaways would be imagined. We’d look up hotel rates online. Now that we all live in the same city, we hardly engage. We’re all “busy”, “too much happening”, “no time to breathe”.

Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author, columnist, children’s life-writing coach and youth motivational speaker. She blames the somewhat disembodied state of friendships on the pace of life, the increased competitiveness (“yes, competitiveness has sneaked into our social interactions more than we realise”), and probably our insistence on having things (including relationships) on our terms.

“These have all made friendships become more relative than real. And, in the process, we have lost sense of what friendship really is or who a true friend is. We call contacts on FB our friends. We call our colleagues our friends.

“We pull old classmates under the umbrella of friends. Like Shah Rukh Khan suggested in the movie Dear Zindagi, we now have different friends for different purposes, which makes me think that friendship has indeed become transactional and superficial. We like to keep all of them in our good books, call them friends, keep them handy, and occasionally ghost them when there is no major reason to communicate.” Asha has a valid point.

And yet, there’s a middle ground somewhere, away from the hyperbole, that can sum up meaningful friendships. Yes, it is a matter of give-and-take; it is transactional to a certain extent, inasmuch as neither party can be taken for granted; it is vulnerable to the vagaries of life-altering events such as a Covid lockdown. But if you cut through the clutter, you will find joy — or at least flashes of joy… and life, as they say, is lived in flashes.

Recently, when I heard about the earthquake in Luzon, I suddenly remembered my friend Brian Salter, broadcaster, communications specialist and former BBC journalist — who used to be a Dubai expat till some years ago — lives around there.

Although I had wished him on his birthday — June 28 — usually there are intervening months when we do not stay in touch (different time zones is the main culprit); but whenever we reconnect, it seems like we’re seamless, and we’re back to being in Dubai where we’d talk about everything under the sun sitting in a food court in some mall at least once a week. “Are you alright?” I pinged him. Yes, he responded.

The region where he and his wife live wasn’t much affected. “But thanks for asking,” he said, sounding almost formal. Formality. That’s what distance and social distancing have ushered into friendships.

Space is sacrosanct, so nothing should sound like one is being ‘intrusive’. It’s “normal” to seek permission from friends these days: “Are you free to take a call?” even if it’s the weekend and it’s not an odd time, and the person is probably free. If you barge into personal spaces unannounced, there’s a half-chance offence may be taken. Surely that’s not what Marlene Dietrich meant?

Knowing Brian, it was simply a turn of phrase, not formality per se. So, I decide to ask him what he thinks about Friendship Day — which is on August 7 this year (it falls on the first Sunday in August) in many parts of the world, including the UAE. “Call me cynical if you like (and many have!) but the very idea of Friendship Day sticks in my throat,” Brian snorts.

“During the 1930s, the founder of Hallmark Cards — Joyce Hall — started the concept of Friendship Day as a marketing gimmick to sell greetings cards. The United Nations General Assembly officially declared the International Day of Friendship in 2011. And Winnie the Pooh was appointed as the Ambassador of Friendship by the United Nations in 1998!”

The Internet suggests that on Friendship Day, we should spend time with a friend. Or create and send a card to a friend; make a new friend; learn how to make friendship bracelets; bake friendship bread.

“Oh, please, give me a break!” he laughs, before giving us his version of friendship: “I was lucky enough to work in the Middle East for some eight years, and I made some very good friends in Saudi Arabia with who I am still in touch with after more than a decade. The UAE, too, has produced long-lasting friendships for me. It doesn’t seem to matter how long we have been out of touch… when we pick up again, we simply carry on from where we left off. For me, that is the real definition of friendship. And the fact that they are simply there for you when you need them the most.”

Friendship with boundaries, and ‘transactional’ relationships

The advent of social media has affected the bond of friendship — mainly in an adverse way, feels Jayashree Kulkarni, who spent most of her working life in Abu Dhabi as a teacher, and is now based in Pune.

“The number of inboxes (email and social media) we possess is staggering… Social media is getting bigger and more pervasive with each passing day… We do interact with more people, but that is all through texts, messages and mails.” Face-to-face meetings, intimacy, closeness, warmth — they’ve all been whittled down, and “true friendships are few and far between today.”

Jayashree’s learnt it the hard way. “Whenever I forge a friendship, I think it is for keeps… I had an unsavoury experience with a few of my ‘friends’ some time ago. They betrayed my trust and detached themselves from me when I needed their emotional support the most. Though my husband and I helped them build a life, walked that extra mile many a time, they did not stand by me…”

Visual artist Tayyaba Anwar grew up in Pakistan, moved to Canada as a teenager and came to Dubai a few years ago when she was in her late 20s. When she was new in Dubai, people wanted to befriend her but she soon realised that “they wanted to associate with me because I’m from Toronto, and they were applying for immigration, or somebody’s child wanted to get into university there and needed contacts… It just felt so transactional!”

Tayyaba also talks about how social media has impacted the way we keep in touch with our friends. “What used to be a one-hour phone call with a long-distance calling card is now a heart emoji under a status update.”

She misses her childhood friends “who, in many cases — like mine — may not be our go-to crowd anymore” but what she shared with them was “surely the purest form of friendship… unconditional and carefree”.

Her husband, on the other, is “lucky” because he’s still in touch with all his school friends — they have a group, travel together, even though they are in different parts of the world.

Kalpana Shah is a trustee with an NGO in India, but, these days, she spends most of her time in the UAE. “Today, you don’t think twice before casually introducing an acquaintance as a friend… at times, friendships are formed with lot of ‘calculation’ in mind — the social status of a person is an important bar, something social media has fanned even more, with this need to keep up with ‘appearances’.”

There may still be people who will take the bullet for a longtime mate, but, by and large, we have become more private and protective — open to social interactions only if we see that there is some reward, points out Asha.

“It can be anything from a common enterprise and interest to merely having a good time together… Friendships now need not mean knowing each other inside out. Two people can be ‘friends’ and still not know little details about each other, especially in these times of long-distance associations maintained over quick, short text messages or over social media where connections are mostly fleeting.”

The gender bender

Do women view friendships differently from men, I’ve often wondered. And I think they do. “Men tend to be more practical, and less emotional, and their friendships are mostly based on shared activities,” agrees Jayashree. Women, on the other hand, are pickier and choosier, get emotionally involved, and tend to invest more in maintaining their friendships.

Unlike men, they are more easily upset and hurt if their friends do not reciprocate their sentiments or are unable to keep in touch.” What an individual perceives as important in a friendship is more complex than simply gender,

explains Dr Robert Chandler, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia. “Our personalities, level of extroversion, and pre-existing templates of what friendships are, are key driving factors. That said,

research indicates that women generally tend to place higher value on face-to-face relationships, which are built on knowing and discovering their friends on deep, intimate levels. Conversely, research indicates that men may have a preference for friendships that are either more transactional in

nature, or built around shared activities.” But there’s another perception. Most men, Tayyaba feels, tend to be straightforward and don’t beat about the bush, whereas women read too much into things. “I really don’t know the science behind it,” she laughs. “But, as a woman, I tend to overthink: I would ‘read’ someone’s tone when they speak to me and try and figure out what they actually meant, I would tend to read between the lines.” And she believes women gossip more about their friends than men do. “Not men saying men don’t gossip, but women gossip more.” An interesting trend she’s observed is that women, more than men, put up “spiteful quotes” on social media, as if they are trying to send out a message to someone — probably a friend who they’ve fallen out with. Tayyaba knows a few women whose idea of

friendship is dressing up and hanging out, clicking photos for Instagram… “I mean, that’s all what their friendship is about: commenting on each other’s posts, hyping each other up… there’s nothing real about them.” Women are known to be more emotionally invested in their friendships than men, although even that is changing, says Asha.

“They seek the support and presence of their friends, are more intimate, expressive and confiding than men are to their male friends. The level of expectations is also high among female friends. And this makes women’s friendships more susceptible to hurts and breakups.” Maybe it’s because of the way the female hormone works, she laughs. “Men can go for long periods without contacting their so-called friends, and yet not feel awkward to make a call when a need arises, but women look for constant reinforcement of the bond, and tend to feel ignored when there is no regular interface.”

So, do the 4am friends actually exist?

Despite the frailties, we still long for true friends, “which is a rarity in today’s age and era”, says Jayashree. “The most beautiful thing about true friends is that they can grow separately without growing apart. Lucky are those who have such gems in their lives!”

Friendship — genuine friendship — according to Kalpana, does not depend upon age, sex, social status, distance. She gives her favourite example of a friend being there for her: “I work with children a lot and have made lasting friendships with them. They don’t expect anything other than your affection. I’d lost someone dear to me and was in tears, and one of my little friends saw me crying. She quietly came, sat on my lap and hugged me. After sometime, she said ‘Please don’t cry. You do not look nice when you cry. That brought a smile to my face… That’s friendship for me. Life is busy for everyone and we acknowledge the difficulty of being constantly available, says Asha. “But in crunch times, the real ones do show up. As they say, you know who your real friends are only when you are in trouble.”

Expats in places like Dubai often rely on friends to, quite literally, become their second family, avers Dr Robert. One of the basic needs of human beings is to have a sense of belonging and community… to have a tribe.

“It can be destabilising when friends move on; people will often have invested a good deal in the friendship and the friend moving on can be experienced or processed as rejection or abandonment. This said, it is still important for expats to invest in friendships, even if these might come to an abrupt end at some point.”

When Brian left England and set out on the path of “expat-ship” — as he calls it — his ‘friends’ at the time asked why on earth he wanted to go and live in Saudi Arabia (and then the UAE, and China, and the Philippines) for.

“They couldn’t comprehend that anywhere could offer anything better than ‘old blighty’. It wasn’t long before we had grown apart with my new experiences of the world being totally incomprehensible to them. We had nothing in common, no formal bedrock of mutual support. And it wasn’t long before we had lost touch — forever I suspect.”

But his new-found friends from the Middle East and Asia were of a different ilk. “Even though we were from different countries, we shared mutual interests and backgrounds. We could also understand our different situations.”

And that’s what friendship is all about, Brian believes: “William Yeats had said, ‘There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met’. I wonder if he was talking about the expat community…”

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