…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World
This year my young nieces ended up moving schools, twice, and they also moved house. During these changes they quickly made, and re-made, new friends and this highlighted to me how great a capacity kids have at doing this. It also made me more aware of how perhaps a lot of us seem to grow out of this and lose this ability.
I’m sure there is some sort of species’ survival instinct at play here when it comes to befriending people, such as the benefits of operating as part of a group, rather than being on our own, during harsh times, or even the benefits of being in a group when it comes to finding a mate – in this modern age having friends to set you up with, or offer you encouragement regarding someone you like must be helpful. There are benefits too that help ensure our emotional well-being – we are apparently social creatures. I think some people are guided more by peer pressure and maybe don’t learn to stand on their own – maybe not so much a bad thing, just seemingly the opposite to how I operate.
I now think back through my life and remember changing schools and moving house, starting college, working, and going to university, and perhaps significantly for my adult life I ponder what the internet and the changing times there have done to help shape or perhaps limit my friend-making abilities.
This post contains a lot of self-reflection and me looking back to some of the friends I’ve had over the years, but perhaps, I hope, the insight will be a helpful read to others.
I can remember the moment when I was about six years old and I gained one particular friend called Adam. This will perhaps paint me as a horrid little boy at that age but I remember bullying Adam, I remember that he suffered from eczema and as a child (or even as adults) some of us seem to have this innate instinct to set upon those that we perceive to be weaker than ourselves (shamefully, I can recall a few instances of doing this throughout the years), and we don’t need to be particularly tough to do this. There was some sort of ‘altercation’ with Adam during break time and a teacher told me to go and apologise. In hindsight I could have been a stubborn kid and refused, but I shuffled off with my head held low to find Adam – seemingly propelled by a moral compulsion. I found him in the cloakroom and I told him I was sorry for what I had done, I also think I found some words of explanation for why I had done what I did and within moments a friendly conversation opened up, and, well, we found common ground and we became friends.
Perhaps within a year or less though I was to move house, and reluctantly change schools. I still met up with Adam initially with our parents ferrying us back and forth at the weekends, but it came to be that Adam was advised to write me a letter to say we needed to make new friends now. I cried into that letter.
My new house was great though and there were other kids to play/build dens with on the estate, I fondly remember my friendship with a girl called Johanna. I remember starting the new school and being sat with another guy – I can only hope teachers take some care regarding who best to place new kids under the care of, surely this can be a tricky phase. I remember discovering different social etiquettes at this school compared to my last, such as “having to” support one of two football teams (which for me was like flipping a coin since I wasn’t interested in football), and different school requirements, such as forming lines for boys and girls in the playground rather than it being mixed like my last school (which had a lack of guys) – on my first day I didn’t recognise this and I joined the girl’s line because Joanna was in it – oops!
I didn’t seem to really gel with anyone in my class, the guy I was sat with was nice enough, but when I decided to take up trumpet lessons I met a guy called Alex who was starting trombone lessons. He was in the year below me but we met up at break times and I hung out with him and a guy called Clive. These friendships lasted for the duration of this school, with meetings outside of school and his parents also inviting me to go camping with them during one school holiday.
Some years later Johanna’s parents decided to move away and I remember the sad day that she left – I felt pretty lost. After a while though some other friends filled that void. Now due to a lack of kids of the same age as me on the estate I would find myself hanging out with some that were in my younger brother’s year at school, and I remember him having a friend over from school and me and him having more in common than him and my brother – this didn’t go down well with my brother! There were a few occasions where I socialised with people who were older than myself, but generally not – I think this was dictated by my subconscious but it may have just been down to availability.
At high school my trend towards having one particular key friend (rather than finding myself in big social groups) continued. I sat with Tom for the lessons that we shared and we remained good friends for the four years or more – going on holiday together with his parents for a few years in a row. Some little groups of friends formed at high school but I don’t recall there being a particularly strong social bond between us. Some people I got on well with – there was one particular guy I thought I had a few things in common with, but for some reason that I never understood I had annoyed him I think and he wanted to “see me after class” – I had no issue with him, I didn’t feel particularly threatened by him, and ‘therefore’ nothing came of this, but it probably ruined a chance to be friends, a friendship that could have lasted through to college since we ended up attending the same one, and a part time job at the same place too.
I remember befriending some people during summer holidays, such as when I went away to summer camps. For a few years in a row one kid would stay with relatives on our estate and I would hang out with him and go round and play on his Sega Megadrive (I never had my own games console). For some reason though, one year I took a dislike to him – I can’t remember why, I guess I was just being a teenager, but that was the end of that.
When high school finished and I started college I lost contact with the people I had been to school with – where I lived was out of the way so I never got to bump into them – and I saw the people on my estate less and less as I focused on my studies (or rather, that’s the outward image I displayed). I started a part time job which occupied my Saturday, and I won enough money to buy my first brand new computer – it ran Windows 98 and had a dial-up modem, so that should give you an idea of when this was.
College was a strange time for me. I was in three classes and in two of those student numbers seemed to quickly dwindle and I found myself attending classes with one particular guy – we larked about a fair bit, which was okay for him, but I struggled with the lessons and learning stuff – I never anticipated that learning after high school would be so different and I wasn’t prepared for this. For my third class I seemed to be the only on my course and I was muddled in with students doing similar work but aiming for a different qualification – making friends here just didn’t happen – there seemed to be no social aspect built into my college induction period.
I recently listened to an episode of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about the difficulties of balancing a student social life and learning. It made me think back to those two aspects that I didn’t consciously think about at the time – I went to college, and university, and another college, to gain qualifications – I didn’t think about what I needed to do to make friends or how important that might be – good friends can be an asset when it comes to private study (struggles with which I wasn’t openly aware of). It seemed I had left school lacking those social skills one requires as a young adult to fit in with others. It wasn’t really obvious to me at the time but I felt like an outsider, even though in the beginning few people know anyone else – I suspect I look inwards too much and fail to appreciate that others are in the same boat.
With my shiny new computer at home, what social interactions I lacked at college I searched for online – these were the times of internet chat rooms and the process of making friends seemed to just begin with asking “asl?” From that period of my life onwards I never really made a new friend that wasn’t with someone online – one guy at a second bout of college made an effort to invite me to join him and the others on their lunch break, but something within me compelled me to decline – I felt awkward or “shy” (a difficult term to ascribe to myself, being a guy and all) and I already had my lunch break, with my packed lunch, planned out in my head (socialising, I would realise later, involved one to be flexible and open to being directed somewhat by a group – something I still didn’t link any value to). I remember when we were all new on the college course and me being keenly aware of how everyone was being so nicey-nice to each other because we were all strangers and seemingly consciously aware of making a bad first impression. Since childhood we had developed inhibitions, and also (to put it bluntly) become somewhat ‘fake’ it seemed. Sure we want to be liked, and maybe to be popular, but gone were the days of bragging about how fast your dad’s car was.
One guy I was later in a work environment with seemed to try and get me to hang out (which I did once during his birthday), and while that was never specifically to involve drinking alcohol, another aspect of myself that would put distance between such a prospect as this was my lack of desire to go out drinking. I had no interest in trying to fit in by going along with this social convention, instead perhaps consciously choosing some sort of moral high ground and preferring to be alone – I’m sure at the detriment of any real life friend making abilities I may have had left.
I now work completely alone – the closest I have to work colleagues is some friendly clients who I might chat to about things outside of work. ‘Fitting in’ with such people outside of work though seems to be hampered by me being somewhat younger than any of my clients, but thinking about this now – why should this be an issue? It’s not school where anyone more than a year below or above you is considered to young or two old to ‘play with’. Maybe I don’t fully perceive myself as the adult I now am.
I shy away from groups like I shy away from religion – I don’t like the prospect of ‘fitting in’ when finding myself not completely agreeing with the whole group’s mindset – perhaps lacking the confidence to stand on my own in the face of any group objections. I prefer one-to-one interactions but the chances of finding myself in a non-virtual environment that involves this is a very rare occurrence – living in the countryside (and the lack of desire to go out drinking) have, and surely always will pose a problem.
I grew up when the internet was still in its infancy, and as mentioned, at the start of my time online internet chat rooms were the way to socialise online, but it wasn’t really like social networking as it is today – today you can ‘network’ with people in your local area, whereas back then far fewer people were online and therefore I was talking to people all over the world, and for me this hasn’t changed as I have been a visitor to the virtual world that is Second Life for over five years, but as the internet has become the norm for a lot more people, others seem to be using it in a different way – for some reason my socialising abilities are even lacking online when it comes to finding and communicating with people in my own neck of the woods. Now with over 15 years spent online I feel like I am stuck in my ways – if I was a child and thrown into a (physical) room full of others I would surely emerge shortly after with a new best friend, but as an adult, if I was thrown into a room full of adults of a similar age I would surely emerge alone – I have my inhibitions and these seem to be what get in the way of everything.
Perhaps the internet hasn’t been the total cause of my lack of ‘real life’ friend-making abilities. In Second Life (and on blogs too) I will happily start conversations with strangers (if I can see some common ground beforehand – such as in their user profile) and therefore these virtual spaces seem to have made me more confident to involve myself with others offline too, if only in small doses – I might take myself out for coffee (although generally to familiar places or where there is a familiar face) and even make small talk with a stranger if the situation arises (I remember practising what little german I have learned this year on one visitor, which greatly amused and impressed me) – I tell myself, when I become aware of my introversion and my lack of flexibility when entering real public environments to “be open to random,” or even to “smile,” since I became aware that I seem to have developed a natural frown that I thought was warding people away!
The right environment must also be important, a school or playground environment encourages us to make friends as children, but finding environments that work well for us when we ‘grow up’ is perhaps not so straightforward – although I’m quite happy playing on swings!
Sometimes it seems I/we expect others to be the inviting or outgoing ones and when no one else comes forward we perhaps sit back and live in a quiet world instead. Quiet personal space is certainly good, but having the confidence to step forward and be the ‘party starter’ occasionally too is a good thing too.
And just as I was finishing this post a delivery guy turns up, but after he knocks my door he realises he is 5 minutes early and I can’t yet sign his gadget to confirm receipt of my parcel – I was almost tempted to invite him in for coffee! How very socially considerate I have become 😀