When I moved to Flagstaff 11 years ago, I marveled at how wonderful it was to see so many people I knew wherever I went. It felt joyful to be able to stop and say hello and chat for a few minutes in the produce section or while walking to dinner with my husband. My friend, a long-time resident, expressed bemusement. “Just you wait,” she told me. “It’s not always so great.”
I didn’t want to believe her and maybe a part of me still doesn’t. I do still enjoy the serendipitous meeting of people I know, but it seems that more and more of these encounters involve some kind of business transaction. I am sure at times I have been guilty of this as well. We’ve been emailing or missing each other on the phone and here we both are in the Sprout’s produce section. Now’s a great time to ask them to be on a nonprofit board. Trust me, it’s not.
As I finish writing an essay about what constitutes friendships, my self-reflections make me realize the differences between friendships and acquaintances. It should be easily discernable, but, in a smaller town like Flagstaff, it may be that many of us equivocate seeing someone regularly with friendship. There is a difference between friendship and simply needing something from someone else. There is a place for both types of relationships in our lives, but it would be helpful (and more honest) to be transparent in our interactions. For example, perhaps we shouldn’t pretend that we are enjoying a beer with someone when our real intention the whole time is to ask them to invest in our latest cause.
Social media also gives us a false sense of friendship, and smarter people than me have written about this phenomenon. It used to be that people would ebb and flow out of our lives naturally. In addition to being connected to middle school friends whom we may not remember so well, I’ve become more cognizant of another social media behavior: We are talking at people rather than engaging in a dialog. When I posted a photo of a manuscript I am working on (by the way, why did I do that?), a friend asked me a question about the book and I replied but never asked her in return what she is writing these days. In the performative aspect of social media, I am sometimes the first to forget some basic human principles like caring about others and asking about their interests and lives.
William James noticed there are also performative aspects while moving around in society. A friend tells me he’s hard-pressed to find anyone in Flagstaff who doesn’t think I’m nice. I know he’s not talking with any of my former co-workers. I’m not always nice—and those who really know me tell me when I’m being a jerk—but I am generally friendly out in the “wilds” of Flagstaff because I am truly happy to see people. What I never expect, but what mostly happens, is the other person may not ask how I am, but will jump right into asking me to be on a board. Or to read a manuscript. Or to be a connection to someone else they know who just moved to town. I do want to help and do as much as I can, but there are limits, especially if I’m doing errands or running late for a meeting or otherwise distracted.
For example, a good rule of thumb: If you see me out and I have an adult beverage in my hand, it’s probably not the time to ask me to be involved in an important project that you care about. Likewise, if you see your veterinarian at the carwash, just say, “Hello.” Or if you see the executive director of a nonprofit who looks like she may be on a date, just keep walking. We don’t have to conduct business every minute of every day. Asking someone to meet with you for the express purposes of a business transaction allows all of us to understand what is at stake and the true nature of the relationship.
In the Time before the Internet, we made friends and chose our friend groups with more intentionality. We carefully planned get-togethers and helped each other out because that’s what friends do. There was more reciprocity as well, although that’s not the reason why we help others. It was more that in the building of those relationships, we understood whom we could count on and who might be able to help at a later time. As friendships grow and change, we could do more for each other as well as ask more from each other. This world we live in now can be confusing, so the more time we spend understanding the difference between friendships and acquaintances and cultivating real and meaningful friendships, the happier we’ll find ourselves overall.
Last week, I had the chance to have dinner with my best friend and catch up. Afterward as we walked downtown, we ran into four other people we knew who were out walking as well. We hugged each other, chatted about how beautiful the night was, and left after a few minutes to go our separate ways. No business was transacted, but we did get to pet a dog or two. I miss this kind of joy in encountering others I know and sharing smiles and warm embraces. So, the next time we meet downtown, let’s say hello and have a hug and appreciate the serendipity that brought us together. That cheerful and warm connection will go a long way toward making the day that much better. Let’s enjoy the moment for what it is—a chance meeting between potential (and hopefully eventual) friends.
Stacy Murison’s work has appeared in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies (where she is a Contributing Editor), Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, River Teeth and The Rumpus among others. She holds an MA from Georgetown University and MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition.
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