The first friend syndrome

Here is something I’ve consistently noticed in my life and that has really bugged me for a while. See, whenever I go to a new place or a new job or a new institution, I start to make friends (not always, but usually I can, ha), and almost always, there is one person who I find easy to get along with right from the start. I consider them a likely friend. But inevitably, I drift away from this person and the friendship ends. Sometimes I end up finding these “first-friends” pretty obnoxious.

And this has happened MANY times. At first I thought it was just my own prejudice acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy so that my knowledge of this first-friend rule (that they are ephemeral and destined to disappear) makes me regard the person who I first become friends with more critically over time. I would be defeating myself merely by learning about myself, and it wouldn’t be the first time (a theme on this blog is that sometimes learning more about yourself makes you less able to do things). In the end though, I don’t think this is what’s happening because not only have I found a better explanation, but I approach every new encounter as a possibility to break with this past pattern. I don’t really take this rule into account ex ante, but I always find it holding true ex post.

Like I said, I have a better explanation, and its that when we enter new environments, we are especially sensitive to making friends. We are especially friendly, or worse, we exaggerate the parts of ourselves we think others will like and hide and downplay the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. We also quickly latch on to perceived similarities when they aren’t really there. Someone is from the same state as us, or interested in the same type of books or movies, and though these things are, in the grand scheme of things, not similarities that a friendship can be built on, we take them to be the formula for a buddy. We trick ourselves time and time again (I use “we” but perhaps no one has this ridiculously bizarre problem) only to find out later, in the light of day, that the person was not like us and that the person they found to be friendly was not ourselves but a cardboard cutout of our personality.

As is typical, I think this is an interesting phenomenon for broader reason because it involves the question of whether we have a “real” self or personality. Some postmodern people or smart-alecky college kids (I’ve been both I guess) think that of course there cannot be a true self. We change who we are for each situation and every group of people. And it’s true, we do act very differently depending on whether we’re with parents or friends for example. Is there anything that unites these disparate performances?

I’m not sure, but I tend to think that there something interesting and puzzling going on, because we throw around terms that make distinctions between what we feel comfortable being and what we don’t. I the distinction lies in the fluidity with which we navigate different situations. We are comfortable with friends and parents alike, we can jump into the conversations with ease. We know our privileges and responsibilities in these relationships very simply.

In other moments though we are simulating a little bit. We may be very quick and very fluid with this simulation but there’s an element of deception, and it happens to me when I’m being friendly to someone at a party or someplace and they make the offer to hang out sometime. When I hear that, sometimes I cringe on the inside. I say to myself “I don’t want to hang out with this person,” and that’s when I realize that I’ve been simulating a friendly vibe and that the other person has been taken in by it (might be related to what I said in this post). It makes me feel bad sometimes, but it’s something we can’t really notice, and even if we could, its not clear what we could actually do about it. Is the answer to be less friendly? (see this post)

Anyway, I’m the victim of this all the time, and I know the damage it can do to. For one thing, it makes me more cynical and guarded when I meet new people, both for my sake and theirs.

All this is to say, there’s not shortcut to a friendship. You can’t reveal everything all at once to someone; that’s weird and off-putting, but over time, you can slowly reveal yourself and become more “natural” and hopefully the other person is doing the same.


1 Response to “The first friend syndrome”

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