It may be the season of good will to all mankind, but it’s also an opportunity to take stock. Heather Harris looks at the tricky issue of how to narrow your social circle...
There may be ‘50 ways to leave your lover’ but no-one has ever written a song about how to dump a friend, now have they? ‘Consciously uncoupling’ from a partner or spouse may be traumatic, but at least there are established rules and regulations on how to do it. If you’re a teenager, of course, then a simple text is the current method of choice, followed by a quick ‘change of status’ on all social media. After all, this is how the world first knew that Chelsey – or was it Cressida? – wasn’t destined to get Harry up the aisle and bestow a public holiday and a new tea towel on us all.
But friends… they’re a whole different matter. Despite the fact that we have not publicly promised to stay together ‘in sickness and in health, till death us do part’, friendship bonds seem to be harder to break than romantic ones.
A recent survey by Microsoft’s MSN Messenger has revealed that women make nearly 400 friendships in their lives. Think how many phone calls and electronic forms of communication are involved to keep up with all 400. It’s a full-time job – with no lunch break – so, for clearly practical reasons, there has to be regular rationalisation. As new friends appear, old ones must disappear to make room. As an anonymous writer (whose ‘friends’ clearly read her column) in the Daily Mail put it, “In the past, when I was still insecure enough to believe everyone must be my friend, I would bite my lip, change the subject and continue to meet people in the hope that eventually we would reach common ground.” Then came a moment of truth. “Now I expect a whole-hearted friendship filled with common purpose or I can’t be bothered. Because how many friends can a busy women maintain? I believe you can probably count them on one hand. Hitting the age of 40, I took a long look at old friends and decided to start culling!”
But it’s not that easy. “No-one likes to hear they are surplus to requirements, so tread carefully,” says Jodyne L Speyer, author of Dump Em: How To Break Up With Anyone From Your Best Friend To Your Hairdresser. She wrote the book because she realised that she was useless at ending unwanted friendships – though she says now that it does get easier with practice.
She even suggests a ‘pre-dump’ meeting. “Give a warning. Maybe they can fix it and if they can’t then at least they knew it was coming. And be kind. They don’t need a hundred reasons, but let them know what the problem is, so that they can have that information and move on!”
With friends like Jodyne, who needs enemies? And, of course, the basic problem with her approach is that usually there is no ‘problem’.
Let me explain. If a ‘friend’ steals my boyfriend/husband/credit cards/favourite dress or is rude/insensitive/fails to keep my secret or cancels me more than three times in a row without reason – then fine… in my current menopausal state, it is not tricky to have a row and politely suggest they get off my current list of 400.
However, this only seems to happen in Eastenders. In normal life we simply ‘move on’. Our circumstances change and suddenly we have nothing in common with certain people. There’s no row, no problem – just a shift. And a whole load of guilt.
Take, for example, the consequences of signing up for NCT (National Childbirth Trust) classes where, fittingly, many female friendships are born. Initial bonding over a mutual terror of the labour ward is cemented over the following months in a haze of exhaustion and shared sobbing phone calls involving sore nipples, nappy rash and percentile charts. The sheer boredom of being at home with non-speaking small people results in a certain desperation. All these new people are your friends; they know you better than you know yourself. It’s impossible to imagine that it will ever be any different.
Until one of the group goes back to work… and then another… and everything changes. As my sister-in-law, mother of a two year old, explains, “As a few of us returned to work the remaining group tried to hold the friendships together by moving our coffee morning to evenings out. We soon found that we had nothing in common anymore. We were meeting out of habit… I began to dread the monthly email suggesting the latest venue.”
And that’s the trouble. Friendships gone stale are the breeding ground of resentment. I have friends from university whom I lived with 24 hours a day – we shared everything from the milk to our boyfriends. But in those days I wore flared purple cords and matching tank tops, my hair was a cross between Leo Sayer and a French Poodle and I invented a fascinating, gregarious art student personality that I could just about maintain for two years.
Roll on three decades and my personality has been updated, along with my wardrobe. My hair has been ironed out, but some friendships refuse to budge. This is not to suggest I want to jettison my entire past. Two of my closest friends date from those days, but there are also a number of ex room-mates who want to drag me to discos and eat kebabs at 2am at least three times a year – and I simply don’t have the energy or the appetite to comply.
A ‘pre-dump’ meeting would be impractical – and expensive given we live miles apart – unless I warned them to buy a supersaver day return rather than their usual weekend ticket. But I am simply not that brave. Instead I adopt the ‘slow fade-out approach’ favoured by internet experts – and you wouldn’t believe how many there are writing on this very subject.
In the past, the lack of a Christmas card would be an initial step. Now we can delete them out of our lives one megabyte at a time. First we delay replying to emails or text messages; we refuse invitations without the need for elongated excuses (how many funerals can I be attending before they get the hint?) until we make the ultimate step of ‘unfriending’ them on Facebook.
This technological snub has previously been very one-sided, with the dumpees having no idea they have been deleted out of the dumper’s virtual – and actual – life, but the increasing popularity of apps such as ‘Who Deleted Me’ or ‘Friend or Follow’ can now allow everyone to see if they still number among the top 400.
Psychologists have been rubbing their hands – and no doubt folding their arms – in glee at this wealth of new material. After all, who is it that actually wants to know if they’ve been dumped? Surely only the most hyper-insecure. As Julie Garner, a New York clinical therapist, explains, “People respond to unfriending in many different ways. Some are amused and dismissive, some are hurt and saddened. But the type of people who would closely monitor their friends’ lists are the type who are most likely to be hurt by this rejection.”
The University of Colorado Denver recently conducted a large study on unfriending (whatever happened to discovering a cure for the common cold or searching for life beyond our solar system?) and discovered that in terms of who gets the chop, it’s school friends first, followed by friends of friends, then work friends, and finally friends with common interests.
Ground-breaking stuff, hey? For me, what’s more intriguing is why you would want to sever online contact with anyone. After all, as Christopher Sibona, co-author of the Denver study (it took more than one?), points our, “The cost of maintaining Facebook friendships is pretty low. If you make a conscious effort to push a button to get rid of someone, that can hurt.”
So it’s back to feigning funerals for me… oh and slotting false change of address and phone number cards into a select number of the 400 Christmas cards I plan to send this year…