Striking a Friendship Match
The Etiquette for Having Your Friends Befriend Each Other
By HENRY ALFORD
OCT. 24, 2014
When your friends hit it off with your friends, it can suffuse you with a warm, caramel glow that tells you, “All is right with the world.” It’s as if your talent for tracking down the excellent and the lasting in people is so fecund that two people in this talent’s awesome path have suddenly been made pregnant. Group hug.
Alternatively, the experience can feel more like an unannounced cancer screening. Andrea Lavinthal, who wrote “Friend or Frenemy? A Guide to the Friends You Need and the Ones You Don’t” with Jessica Rozler before becoming People magazine’s beauty and style editor, said, “Most girls won’t admit this, but they’d rather you hit on their significant other than their best friend.”
Ms. Lavinthal said she once invited a work colleague to join her and a friend for brunch. A few weeks later, Ms. Lavinthal stumbled onto the two women having dinner together in a restaurant, and learned that they had been spending a lot of time together.
“There they were in the restaurant, loving each other, probably talking about how I’m not funny enough or smart enough,” she said. “What do you say? On the surface, you can’t be mad. That makes you look like a crazy person. Are you going to insist that whenever they hang out, you be there? That’s weird. Are you going to bring it up and be bereft? That’s an interaction that’s so hard for girls. We’d rather cut our bangs again.”
The anxieties and etiquette quandaries that result from having your friends befriend your friends seem particularly acute for women; the software programmer and philanthropist Peter Norton said of the friendships that have sprung up around him: “These things don’t inspire any resentfulness on my part. Maybe occasionally a touch of wistfulness.”
But that doesn’t mean that women, with their ready stores of problem-solving skills and emotional acuity, are any better prepared to deal with these anxieties and quandaries.
Elena Ferrante’s series of partly autobiographical Neapolitan novels, considered by some critics to be the most powerful and nuanced view of female friendship ever written, contains many examples of friend-based jealousy, including a memorable scene in which our protagonist, Elena, worries about introducing her sultry and brilliant best friend, Lila, to Elena’s friend and mentor, Professor Galiani: “I was afraid that, whatever she wore, her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager to grab a fragment of it ... I was afraid that [Professor Galiani] would understand that I was only Lila’s pale shadow. ...”
The theme of social poaching is to reality television as diphthongs are to country music: on “The Hills,” the besties Lauren and Heidi fell out over a boy, and then Lauren stole Heidi’s friend Audrina; on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” Ramona invited Countess LuAnn to dinner but not the friend who had introduced her to the royal personage.
Intriguingly, even those instances in which one person actively midwives a relationship between two of her pals can be bittersweet. A few months ago, the comedian Aparna Nancherla was the booker for an evening of comedy at the Ars Nova theater in Hell’s Kitchen.
“I tried to book people that I thought would like each other, and two of them hit it off really well, as I had predicted,” Ms. Nancherla said. “I strangely felt proud and slightly resentful at the same time. I knew it would happen, but. A little while later, I saw one of them commenting on the other’s post online, so I added a comment like, ‘I feel responsible for this.’ Which is a pretty passive-aggressive way of addressing it.”
To some minds, the wind-scarred landscape of wounded friends and their sulking is more noisome than it need be. Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar, who edited “The Norton Book of Friendship” with Eudora Welty, said: “The anxiety about social poaching stems from an inappropriate or distorted view of what friendship is. It views friendship as a zero-sum game, or as an attempt to maximize your resources. It converts the natural generosity of friendship into a kind of investment. The new term ‘friending,’ from Facebook: The very notion that relationships can be described numerically is a curious one.”
Professor Sharp added, “If you can’t trust your friend to have a relationship with another person you consider a friend, it’s a clear symptom of a problem in your friendships.”
Ms. Lavinthal and Ms. Nancherla begged to differ with Mr. Sharp’s latter point.
Ms. Lavinthal said: “You can’t assume a friendship is weak just because a girl’s feelings get hurt. My feelings get hurt 30 times a day. Also, if someone is a chronic poacher, that says more about her than about your friendship with her.”
Ms. Nancherla said: “It’s rare that I have a spark with another person right off the bat. So when it happens, it feels like something you should pursue. But it doesn’t reflect your relationship with the person you met the new friend through.”
The etiquette usually preached to people who are growing closer to a friend of a friend is tripartite. They are urged to broadcast but not flaunt their actions with the second friend to the first friend; to prohibit the second friendship from weakening or supplanting the first friendship; and to refrain from injecting conversations with the second friend about the first friend with the moniker Drunky McClownpants.
Conversely, on the part of the original friend, many find succor in what I’ll call a pre-empt. Last year, while introducing me to a group of 35 or so members of the literary salon she sometimes holds in her Pasadena, Calif., living room, my friend Sandra Tsing Loh, the writer and performer, said, “Ladies, just so it’s clear: Henry is my gay.” The room burst into laughter, and soon I was gabbing away with Meghan Daum and Caitlin Flanagan, wholly confident that I was not scratching a jagged, purple scar in the Searingly Personal, Upmarket West Coast Female Essayist continuum.
Similarly, in the online magazine Dame recently, the advice columnist Julie Klam confessed that when she introduces to each other two friends who she thinks will bond, she says, “ ‘Now, you may not go off and be friends without me.’ And they laugh HA HA HA and I say: ‘I’m not kidding. No shopping trips or going out for a drink after work.’ And then their smiles fade and they think, ‘Gee, I like Julie but she’s a little bit intense, maybe I don’t want to be friends with her or this other person.’ And then everyone’s happy!”
In the end, friendship preservation, like good government or social disease, is a two-way street. Professor Sharp said: “Part of the burden is on the friendmaker to assure the insecure friend that everything is O.K. But part of the burden should also be on the original friend not to be anxious about it.”
Indeed, forbearance may be humankind’s most undersung virtue; in the beauty pageant of life, the swimsuit portion of the evening has been replaced with by the look-the-other-way competition. In Ms. Lavinthal’s case, it paid off. She said of the two women whom she had introduced to each other over brunch: “They became better and better friends. It was weird for a while. But then somehow, organically, I got brought back into the fold. Their friendship cooled off a little bit, and we all found our way back.”
She added: “I feel like I’m the hot item again. They need me now. They need me to get back to the root of why they’re friends.”
Henry Alford is the author of “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners.” Circa Now appears monthly.