Yale has its own standards of politeness. Almost without exception, if you sit down for a talk outside of Yale, you stay to the end. At Yale though, not so much. Many of us leave talks early — whether master’s teas or shopping period lectures — and weigh our time spent listening against insurmountable piles of homework. In Yale’s business of busyness, this behavior is not really rude. But unfortunately, Yale’s business of busyness also applies to our approach to friendships. Our social selfishness is making us bad friends.
Let’s start at the beginning. In freshmen year, our social catch-phase is a pithy: name, college, where you’re from. It’s a trading of driver’s license facts, the basics necessary to find someone online. Friendships arbitrarily form around entryways and freshman counselor groups as freshmen race to accept Instagram followers, attend a cappella shows and trek to Woads. In this rush to know everyone, we don’t really know anyone — just names, colleges and where they’re from.
The sophomore slogan holds more sobriety: “We should get a meal sometime,” followed by the ultimate punch line: “ … actually.” It’s a line delivered with the awareness that you probably won’t get that meal (or if you do, you probably won’t get another). From the freshmen feeding friend-sy comes tightening groups and shrinking circles. It boils down to a numbers game: With only so many hours to socialize in a week, should you spend quality time with a few people, or one hour apiece with many? Most pick the former, prioritizing their handful of capital-f Friendships over an ever-widening circle of lower-case-f friendships.
This social winnowing, however, does not have to be a source of guilt. The ubiquitous use of “friend” to describe those who realistically are our “acquaintances” creates a confusing culture of social selfishness without clear boundaries.
Between acquaintances, we permit and expect selfishness from one another. Acquaintances can skip each other’s improv shows, thesis presentations, even birthdays. Acquaintances do not talk to each other about breakups, or bad grades, or trouble at home. Therefore, being “there for” someone is not within the role of an acquaintance. With an acquaintance, though, we chat, we grab an occasional meal, we dance at parties. While it’s earnest, pleasurable and interesting, it’s low-stakes and low-commitment. We evaluate our time with acquaintances economically: What’s the marginal utility of an hour spent with this person, rather than an hour spent doing something else?
And here’s the taboo thing for me to say — there’s nothing wrong with that. “Acquaintance” is not an insult; it’s a truth. Let’s introduce “acquaintance” into our vocabulary to describe the people we like, but do not love.
It is also in this post-freshman social navigation that those who took Directed Studies (or some version of DS, in my case) might find Aristotle suddenly deeply relevant. Aristotle broke friendships down into three categories: pleasure, utility and goodness. The first two, friendships of pleasure and friendships of utility, are what I am calling acquaintances — ephemeral, accidental and transactional. You scratch my back; I’ll cheerfully scratch yours in return. Maybe we will add this little massage party to our Snapchat stories — who knows?
True friendships are another beast entirely. But if not just pleasurable, then what makes a “friend”?
Aristotle answers this question: a friendship born from mutual admiration for, and attempts to help the other person realize, intrinsic goodness. Unlike pleasure, goodness endures. And unlike utility, we work throughout a friendship to help each other be our mutual best selves. True friendship is rare. It takes time, but it’s the best and most important of the three variations on friendship.
Or to quote Woody Allen: “80 percent of success is showing up.” Successful friendships require the mutual expectation of “showing up,” which does not yet hold at Yale. It’s found in my father’s explanation of why his best friend (Steve) is his best friend. It’s a simple story — Steve picked my dad up from the airport after my dad unexpectedly needed to go to San Francisco (where Steve was living at the time). And despite the rain and the 90-minute drive, Steve was there, right on time. “Friendship is not that he came to get me,” Dad likes to say. “Friendship is that I never doubted that he would.”
Friendship is above the cost-benefit time analysis we accept from acquaintances at Yale. Instead, friends take each other to the hospital. Friends stay up to talk through a breakup, even with an early practice or class the next morning. Friends should remember each other’s birthdays without Facebook (although I’ll let this one slide). Being a friend is hard, time-consuming and requires constant and unflinching support.
If we call our acquaintances our “friends,” we normalize selfishness and weaken true friendships. We cannot pick 500 people up from the airport, nor should we.
Amelia Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .