In every one of the world’s cultures, there exist social protocols, manners, and etiquette that guide us on how we can learn to get along without pissing each other off or making each other cry. Whole streams of literature are dedicated to people’s navigation of the rocky rump of human affairs: satires like The Office and Borat relentlessly expose the squirming nudity of faux pas within and between cultures, teabag by teabag.
And why not? Some form of shared manners, however loosely they be conceived or expressed, remain vital if we’re not to misinterpret the shaking of the sack, the kissing of the venerable digit, the blowing of the spittle and the winking of the waddle.
In any country you go to, the culture’s got nearly all the actions covered: from greetings to farewell, from births to deaths (and marriage in between) – we’ve all got some idea how to behave toward one another. Well, most of us do most of the time. Or… well, some of us do, some of the time.
But one kind of social interaction remains, to the best of my knowledge, completely off the map, a kind of quasi-global social black hole into which our best intentions and most hurt feelings are sucked year after year, without any clear idea of the outcome. Nowhere in all the world, at least as far as I know, is there a culture that has worked out the etiquette of ending a friendship.
If you think about it, it’s huge. Everybody has friends, and most people work their arses off reading between the lines and showing patience, forgiveness and care to people they don’t quite understand, who don’t quite understand them, but who put up with each other. Who inconvenience themselves for each other and who respect (or at least feign respect for) each other.
But shit happens: times change, good friends turn odd, become knobs, or test that patience of yours once too (thousand times too) often. Whether it was the slow, sorry feeling of drowning in scat, the nicky prick of the thousandth cut or the hump-splitting straw that broke the camel’s back, the time comes in all our lives where we should (if we have any self-respect), do the proper thing and tell our ‘friend’ to go fuck themselves, properly and for good.
But how? If you were having regular genital contact with your friend, this is easy… but then, they wouldn’t be your ‘friend’, they’d be your ‘boy/girlfriend’, ‘partner’ or ‘spouse’. In such a case, one part of the couple often ends by asking the other if ‘we’ could ‘still be friends’. You’re saying, more or less, ‘I want to end this habit of genital contact we’ve been having. I don’t like where it’s taking us.’ Getting to this stage in your own words is easy… well, not easy, but at least it’s possible. There exists a panoply of social scripts you can read off. There are roles to play and there are recognised code words, ones that anyone but a complete sociopath (oh, hang on) will understand exactly what you mean when you say (touché cliché), ‘I think we should start seeing other people.’ Or any of the hundred-and-one other wooden heartbreakers we deploy in such situations.
But beyond this point, the black hole opens its ugly maw. There are breakups and there are breakups, but I’m sure I can speak for most of us when I say that there were also BREAKUPS, and that, when ‘it’ happened, you hated the person’s guts and wanted to never see them again under any circumstances. Usually, circumstances intervene on your behalf – they move interstate or overseas; you’re on different tram lines; neither of you have friends (in common).
But let’s just say you’ve never had any genital contact, no-one’s moving anywhere, and the person remains part of your larger social circle? I spoke to half a dozen people about this over the weekend, and the majority (yes, well, four) confessed to being in this situation at the moment and not having the foggiest idea about what to do. Who really breaks up with friends? And how would a friend react if you got all socially experimental and blazed that trail? Last year, a friend of mine wrote a letter to a ‘friend’ of theirs who’d made their shitlist. My friend showed it to a third party who knew the ‘friend’, and the third advised (wisely, in hindsight) them not to send it. ‘Every word of it is true,’ third said, ‘but if I got that letter, I’d throw myself off a bridge.’
So my friend kept the letter, said nothing, and dribbled on with the wreckage of a friendship, without trust or hope for re-building something. Only last week, I experienced this firsthand: a ‘friend’ of mine appeared out of the past and reminded me of everything I was trying to forget about why it was probably for the best if we never see each other again… if we had been a couple, it never would have happened, but because we’re ‘friends’, we’ll never break up. It’ll just wheeze on, and in ten years they’ll wonder why I’m funny about them calling me out of the blue and asking if there’s a place they can stay (which they will, natch).
A friend of mine (and a true one) would often say: ‘Champagne for my true friends… and pain for my sham friends.’ But (like most curses), this is a toast of the powerless. What can we do in this situation? Anyone? Bueller?
in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked
- ▼ February (4)
- ► 2007 (53)