Can I call you that? I’m not sure. We’re not really friends yet. Maybe we haven’t even met. Or maybe we have. Maybe we sat at the same table at a young professional networking event and struck up a stilted conversation for 10 or so minutes before the speaker began the program.
Maybe we learned that we both grew up in suburbs – you on the northern fringe of Chicago while I was straight west. Maybe we learned where we work now and what we studied in school. Then that awkward pause came, the one that inevitably follows reaching the end of the list of appropriate small talk questions. Then the speaker started.
After he finished, one of your friends from church came up on your left-hand side and you dove deep into conversation about the difficulties your brother is facing in school right now. I remained, standing to your right, outside of this intimate conversation, unsure how to enter in, unsure if I should stay nearby hoping to continue our conversation from before. Hoping to get a chance to become friends.
After a few minutes I snuck away, not even sure if I should interrupt to say goodbye and nice to meet you and let’s talk again some time, I think we could be good friends. (Who says that? Too bold. Yet, I often want to.) With that you became another person I want to be friends with. But we’re not. Not yet.
Like so many others.
To everyone who falls in this category, there are a few things I want you to know. Before you meet me. Or if you have but haven’t decided what to make of me yet.
First, I really, really, really want to be your friend. Really. I can’t hammer this home enough. Despite the following pieces of information, keep coming back to this idea because it is the most important. I get along with almost everyone. I love hearing the stories of all sorts of people, from all walks of life. I want to know more about your experiences, the way you look at and live your life. I want to tell you about mine. I think we could be friends, even if we are very different. Maybe especially because we are very different. Please don’t put me in a faith box or artist box or actor box or doesn’t-wear-cool-enough-clothes box and assume the differences can’t be bridged by friendship. They can, and I really want them to. We can help each other grow.
Second, I don’t think very well of myself. I’ve been on the outside of enough cliques, tried to be open with new people only to be forgotten very soon afterwards, ignored or interrupted as I offer a new thought to a conversation, played games at parties where everyone is given the chance to participate but me, and just generally had a hard enough time making new friends that I’ve lost a lot of confidence to do it. This is not a pity party. I realize this may be a common experience and I am not uniquely targeted for this sort of treatment. It has, however, helped me to lose a lot of confidence in the “making new friends in social situations” department. Hesitancy on my part is not a lack of interest in becoming friends with you. It’s a fear of receiving that sort of treatment all over again.
I realize this is my problem and not yours. Know right now that I am sorry if I put more weight on you than I take on myself to become friends. I don’t want to. It’s a default setting I’m working really hard to reset.
I can’t leave it up to you to bear the weight of making a friendship out of a brief encounter. I can’t sit back and wait for people to become friends with me. I’ve got to reach out. So I try the best that I can, but there are times it just feels impossible. Times where the circumstances feel too like previous occasions. Where I don’t feel cool enough, dressed well enough, have the right crafty or artistic bent to be accepted into the company, know the right thing to say when the discussion turns to politics, etc. Which reminds me of something else.
I can be very bad at beginning conversations. I’m not terrible at small talk. I have enough questions in my arsenal to learn some general things about your background that I can get us started. I like asking questions to learn something about your past experiences. And I really like answering those questions as well.
Yet there will come a point in the conversation where, in order for it to continue, there is a need to ask more personal questions. This is where I stall out as assuredly as driving stick shift for the first time ever in rush hour traffic on the Eisenhower expressway.
After learning what you do for a living, I do really want to know what you like about it, and what you don’t. After hearing that you moved here from Kansas City four years ago, I want to know which place you liked living better, or if you miss your home and family. After telling me that your apartment is in Lincoln Square, I want to know what your favorite restaurant is in your neighborhood.
I am always afraid, however, that these questions will be too personal. I don’t want to ask something that makes you uncomfortable, as we just start to get to know each other. So rather than risk that, I tend to lapse into an equally uncomfortable silence. I’m sorry. I just don’t know how to make the leap from small talk to real conversation. But I desperately want to.
Another thing: I think my thinking face can look like a judging face. This is something I learned recently. In high school, I belonged to a large youth choir and had one or two friends in a group that was otherwise very tightly knit. Years later someone made a comment about me coming from a “rich suburb,” and I realized, maybe they thought I was a snob? Someone in college once mentioned I was unapproachable. Ok, I asked myself, what is the cause of this? In my head and heart, I feel very soft and open to new people. It must be something about my exterior.
Here’s my best guess. I know it takes me a good minute to process information. Sometimes another good minute before I have a response. Perhaps, my face can be harsh as I do both things. This is not an expression of my thoughts however. Usually, it’s because I’m trying to visualize the details of the story you are telling me, or understand a new thought in light of my current worldview. It takes me a bit to process.
Finally, I want you to know that I am somewhere in the middle of being an introvert and being an extrovert. What does this mean as we try to become friends? If I’m in a large social setting, I will be really happy to be there. For about two hours. While I really like being around people, I only have so much energy for large group settings. It also means that I can usually go out a few nights a week, but I also need to stay home a few nights a week. When I decide to go to the networking event on Tuesday night, I give myself permission to skip the church group on Wednesday night. As soon as I feel like I need to go to all the events that I’m invited to, I stop going to anything. I pick and choose so that the ones I go to, I have the energy to really put myself out there and talk to people. To you. It’s a good system. If I don’t show up at the next big group event, please don’t count me out! I’ll be back next time!
Well, that’s all I can think of. Remember what I said at the beginning: I really do want to be your friend. I want to go get coffee in Wicker Park and talk about our ideas about creating art. I want to browse a used bookstore and hear your thoughts about Hemingway. I want to join you for brunch after Church on Sunday and talk about our faith journey. I want to get drinks with you at your favorite bar and laugh and laugh and laugh. How does that sound?
Love, your friend,