Below is the first part of the bonus chapter on friendship of my upcoming book "I Know Why The Cheshire Cat Grins: When Shift Happens".
Third Culture Kid
After traveling to almost a couple dozen countries and living in half a dozen others, one of the issues I’ve constantly had to maneuver around has been that of friendship. I’ve had to manage making new friends in a new environment and maintaining old friends in other places. As a 'third culture kid' who is from everywhere and nowhere, I don't have the luxury of friendships built on the comfort of constancy and longevity. In addition, the nuances of the concepts, responsibilities and expectations of friendships seem to vary by culture, age and outlook.
The Laws of Attraction
Most people include friends and family in the list of things that mean the most to them. But unlike family, which we don’t choose, we do choose our friends and we could change friends if we wanted to. So what makes us talk to one of our classmates and not the other? And no, it doesn’t ‘just happen’. Much as we’d like to think we like our friends just for their sake, nothing could be farther from the truth. At what point does a person make the transition from being an acquaintance to being a friend? It’s not like people have ‘the conversation’ about becoming friends. The laws of attraction in friendship are pretty similar to those of romantic relationships; and yes, there is an element of sexual attraction even for platonic friends! Our friends are people we have shared interests or experiences; people who like what we like, have what have, or have what we would like to have. They also reflect us as individuals as well as in our social outlook.
The Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany and the Chinese Academy of Sciences posed a scenario to children between 7 and 15: Each of them has promised to meet up with one of their old friends who’s having problems, but a new classmate comes along later offering to take them to a concert, all expenses paid. How did they decide? Both sets of younger kids choose to go to the concert with the new friend but for different reasons. For the young Icelanders, it was friendship versus personal freedom and freedom won out. For the young Chinese, it was a choice between loyalty to old friends, or integrating a new kid into the social network. For the Chinese, either option was about putting the group first. For the older kids in the group, both Chinese and Icelanders chose to meet with the old friend – the Icelanders because they felt it was the right moral choice, and the Chinese because of the virtue of close friendship. So it is interesting how the concept of friendship changes, as we age, what culture we belong (or don’t belong to) and according to our individual personalities.
Somehow I believe the all-encompassing Ghanaian concept of friendship resonated most with my personality style and structured my idea of how to relate to other people. For the Ghanaian, if you share a meal or drink together, if you invite or are invited to someone’s home, you’re no longer acquaintances. And the Ghanaians did not earn the moniker ‘Africa’s friendliest people’ on a whim: they are happy to welcome a stranger into their home anytime and will insist they share a meal with them. When I moved to the US, I had to adjust to the new concepts of personal space and privacy that to me, seemed to put up walls interfering with intimacy and spontaneous bonding. I was shocked that next door neighbors didn’t know each other; it infuriated me that people in the elevator would not respond to a general greeting; it seemed silly to ask a good friend if it was ok to come over…
We Have Ignition
So how does a friendship begin? In general, the transition point at which a casual acquaintance moves into the friend status is the point where either party discloses some rather personal information. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Four Loves: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . ."”
After my family moved to Ghana from Switzerland, I was made to sit in the front of the class for special attention. English was not my first language so I needed extra help in my third-grade class. With me at the front were Alemu, an Ethiopian, and Alec, who became my best friend. Apart from sitting next to each other in class, Alec and I bonded because we both grew up in Europe and had similar sensibilities. We also both hated playing football (actually, we couldn’t play even if our lives depended on it) and we both shared a love for aviation. As it happened, Alec’s dad was a pilot. When Alec’s family moved to the next street from me in our teenage years, we were inseparable. With Alec, our shared dislike for football (which we daren’t share with anyone for fear of being labeled sissies) was just the beginning….
Being the kind of person that I am, I get people opening up to me sometimes within minutes of meeting, sometimes in spite of their better judgment. But then I probably invite that in a subtle way by consciously conveying the sense of a safe space to confide – sometimes by opening up first. Being vulnerable gives others permission to be vulnerable as well. Somehow, self-disclosure is an indicator that the person trusts you enough to share a personal part of their story with you – and instinctively we feel elevated to a different level of relationship. That, in turn prompts us to self-disclose as well, cementing the sense of a shared bond.
To be continued...
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