Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Popularity, Then and Now

It felt like a jailbreak, the escape from high school into the freedom and anonymity of university. In the darkness of the lecture theatre, no one cared if you were popular. Groups formed, but they were flat and loose, nothing like the rigid hierarchies of high school. (I have often thought that Mr. Darcy's cold reception of Mr. Collins is nothing - nothing at all - compared to the reaction of a high-school Queen Bee to the friendly advances of a bottom-feeder several steps lower than her on the food chain.)

I'd like to think that this shift comes from maturity, that at age twenty, most of us had outgrown the insecurities that drove our high-school alliances. The evidence, though, suggests otherwise: my then-boyfriend attended a small college with fewer than 800 students, and there was no appreciable difference between the social dynamics of his college and those of my high school. Notably, the male-dominated common rooms of that college were at least as treacherous as a high-school girls' locker room. Contrary to popular suspicion, girls have not cornered the market on meanness. Put people into a contained environment, where everyone knows everyone, and they will arrange themselves into hierarchies.

I see this in my English class. Not in the big lecture hall - there, students arrange themselves haphazardly enough - but in my small college class, populated by students in a preparatory program. In September they had only just met, these thirty kids who would move together through the one-year program. By January, though, alliances had hardened. When I divide them into the groups, the same hands always go up in unison: six smart, outspoken boys from the Caribbean, four quiet blonde girls from Southwestern Ontario. The groups are strikingly homogeneous, sorted by gender, nationality, and even hair colour. Like is drawn to like.

I would like to think of these groupings as innocent. It has been fun to watch friendships form, to watch the quiet girl in the front corner forging an alliance with the more outgoing girls from across the room. Seating habits have evolved to reflect the shifting social arrangements of the group - and certain desks have remained in the possession of loners, people who don't fit in anywhere. When Alice realizes that she's been slotted in with Wade and Horace for her group presentation, her face falls. When Horace walks in late, he's greeted with mocking applause.

The flip side of friendship is casual cruelty; the outsiders seem to serve the purpose of defining the groups from which they are excluded.

Adult social relationships, in my experience, take place not in the freedom of the dark lecture theatre nor in the hothouse of the high-school cafeteria. They are in the coffee shop, where friends meet to sip lattes and trade stories of bad bosses and spilled sippy cups. Friendships occur on an appointment-only basis: the woman sitting in an armchair in the corner, her baby sleeping in a bucket by her feet, is separated from the rest of us by the invisible lines imposed by Canadian standards of politeness. Our eyes don't meet; we don't make small-talk. I hope that she has her own friends she can meet for coffee when she needs to. I know that sometimes she doesn't.

42 comments:

Jess said...

I am only two years out of university and so I love this perspective. I always got the feeling that professors were observing those social interactions and understanding things that most of the students seemed not to register.

Lady M said...

Friendships "by appointment" - what a good phrase, how true. We had a party this weekend where I saw people with whom I hadn't talked live in months. It was delightful fun, and made me a little wistful that the days are gone when we'd spend hours each day in each other's company.

Suz said...

I like how you've classified adult relationships as occurring on an appointment-only basis and feel that it's accurate as well as isolating. No longer on a college campus where we can bump into people in the cafeteria or by virtue of being thrown together in class, it's been my experience that it's more difficult to form friendships as an adult. I wonder if it's generational as well. My parents still have as friends the people that we lived next to over 30 years ago. Insulated by TV, books, and the internet (most notably), I can't remember the names of my neighbor's kids despite living next to them for three years.

Maddy said...

When I was at University, I was already a 'mature student' = 24. Every so often I'd leave my contact lenses at home so that everyone and everything was a fuzzy blur. It certainly made for a whole new perspective [and tested my auditory processing during a lecture!]

I still do it occasionally now, just to make sure that my calibration isn't off. The only difference is that nowadays it's not contacts, but bifocals.

Cheers

Mimi said...

Ah, friendship by appointment. That's very apt. I long to be more casual, more open. I was so awkward socially for so long that I wince to see others in similar positions ...

Beck said...

It's only since becoming a mother that I've stopped feeling so stilted and WEIRD with my friends - now friendship comes much, much easier.
Being a SAHM means that I do a LOT of talking on the phone while emptying the dishwasher, but seeing friends still often involves carefully checking schedules and seeing when we have time.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

Having moved a lot when the kids were younger, I know the loneliness of the solitary mom at the playground or at McDonald's or wherever (sp?). I try to keep that in mind whenever I see a woman alone with kids at the tot lot - she may be dying for some grown-up human interaction. It doesn't cost me anything (even if I am already with friends) to go up to her and chat.

cinnamon gurl said...

Yeah, and I need some appointments! I remember walking in the park with some women from my mums' group and our babes in strollers and this solitary stroller-pushing mom stopped us to ask how we met... I still feel bad that we took her so literally, answered her question and moved on, not taking that overture as a friendly request for friendship.

winslow1204 said...

Amazing of the transitions life does take us on.

Karen said...

yes, too true. Sometimes that is me with no one to meet - but then when I do have people to meet up with, I forget that solitary feeling - it comes in waves these friendships by appointment, based on work schedules, baby sleeps schedules, bus pick ups and head-colds. Winter is rather a lonely time. Life here feels cemented. Everyone has there people - it is truly hard to get out of the rut and make a real, new friendship.

WOW! Women's World said...

Well said! It's all a journey and a process...for me I didn't feel truly "self actualized" until I was 40...then it finally made sense...you look around and realize that you are finally surrounded by the people with whom you were meant to be...some the same and some different...
Julie for WOW!

Don Mills Diva said...

I've been thinking of writing about what you call friendship by appointment - so sad and so true. I am going for drinks with my best friend this week - the first time I have seen her in a year and she lives less than an hour's drive away. I miss school days when my friends were a part of my day-to-day life...

Kyla said...

Very true, all of it.

In school now, I sit with probably the oldest person in our class. She is in her late 30's or early 40's perhaps, but she stays home with her 3 kids and I stay home with my 2. Despite our ages we have quite a bit in common. I suppose there is a great deal of truth to this type of aligning here in the Blogosphere, too. I'm the infant in these parts, but I stick to this circle because our lives are so similar. The beauty of blogging is there is no appointment necessary, you just sneak it in when you can.

bubandpie said...

Kyla, you smartypants - that's the angle I tried to shoehorn into the post but couldn't quite do it. It's the strength and weakness of the blogosphere: like can congregate with like, and it's big and loose enough that it feels like there's room for everyone. But still there are hierarchies, and people who are left sitting by themselves at the table.

wheelsonthebus said...

As an adult, I have been so very lucky not to have to face this too much. I know a lot of adults do get excluded. It has happened to me here in London, which I think may be as much cultural as anything else.

But, and this is what I wanted to get at, I think friendship by appointment is an interesting way to put it. It frees us from getting stuck with someone for the group project who we want to be kind to but have nothing in common with.

Here in the blogosphere, I am struck by the homogeneity (can't spell, sorry) of the people who read me and who I read. How in the hell does THAT happen?

Clearly, your post got me thinking!

Emily

Cyndi said...

Ya, I think it really takes a while before you can move past that "friendship by appointment" part. When you can call someone up for a spur of the moment coffee or playdate, I think that is when you really know you have a true friendship.

Christina said...

In nursing school, our online program is nothing but non-traditional students. Everyone quickly formed alliances within the first week. There is some movement across groups, but after one quarter most are locked in stone.

In the rest of my life, though, friendships really are "by appointment". Twice I have run into another mom in my neighborhood, striking up a conversation, and barging right in to make friends. But both times they were friendly but cool and they have never gone out of their way to talk to me since. (In fact, I think one of them tries to avoid seeing me entirely.)

Clearly they have plenty of friends already, or my approach was not the proper adult way to do things. I'm too used to college, where you just walked right up to someone and started talking.

Luisa Perkins said...

The only thing harder than experiencing the treacherous straits of high school life first-hand is watching your children experience it.

Carrien said...

Wow, I am somewhat oblivious to this social dynamic. I pretty much always say hi to the person in the corner. The friends I make usually start from chatting at the playground, or at church. I have had people respond coolly to my overtures of friendship, but I've had just as many respond warmly and great relationships are formed.

And I am Canadian.

But then, I was also pretty oblivious to social hierarchy in high school too. I just didn't care if it was okay to talk to people ro not, and I just didn't care mostly if I was treated coldly, mostly because I wasn't. (But then, my high school was very large, my grad class was more than 1000 so I guess that allowed for more looseness of social groups. You didn't know who everyone was, that would have been impossible.)

Is it naive that I think that most people are basically friendly? I start to get sometimes that most people are more cold than I, and not eager to form relationships or attachments with people they meet.

I guess I am an odd duck in a way, but I've found some great friends that way, the kind that can walk in the door without knocking and it doesn't matter what my house looks like.

I hold my boundaries more internally than externally I suppose.

JCK said...

I think it gets better as you get older. I didn't have children until I was in my 40's and my experience has been that people are more open, more likely to connect - especially when you bond over children.

Omaha Mama said...

You write beautifully that which I stumbled over this week. I am a constant observer of all things clique. It fascinates me.
Like drawn to like.

It is so true!

I felt that same way in college. While I was maturing, growing apart from some high school friendships, they drew tighter together...reluctant to move on. I've always been interested in it and even considered a double major in sociology due to my interest in these subjects.

slouching mom said...

Like attracting like...I suppose that evolutionarily it would have made sense. It's safer, or at least it's perceived to be safer.

But in theory we're supposed to be beyond thinking evolutionarily, and it's a shame that like still gravitates toward like.

ewe are here said...

That's it exactly at this stage of life: friendship by appointment. And I really wish my calendar was a bit fuller.

Jenifer said...

Why is it that I supposedly have more time now, but I cannot find a single day to meet a friend for lunch? Like is drawn to like and what I am finding now is that you can be at the same place and same point and still have nothing in common. That initial like can be deceiving sometimes. I am finding myself drawn to people who I never would have thought I would be drawn too based on our parenting styles for example.

It is frustrating to have someone in your life who is seemingly perfect for you, but no amount of like can make it work.

Lisa b said...

I feel so badly reading that some people are sitting alone! I think I am just oblivious like carrien. I'll talk to anyone and I don't take it personally if people don't feel like chatting.
Why do so many people seem to hate highschool? I loved it and was totally not ready for it to end. Ultimately though, I also loved the anonymity of university.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

I just had such a similar thought at at a coffee shop last week. I was there with a friend (and blogger, interestingly enough)and our four kids. Another woman was sitting nearby with her almost one-year-old baby. I thought to myself that she was probably just far enough into it to get good and sick of being at home, and her baby was just on the cusp of actually being able to enjoy a play space like the one we were at. I chatted her up a little, but I was a bit self-conscious of the easy conversation I was having with my friend. I was her once. I'm not any longer, not even close, and I'm so very thankful for that.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Usually I work from my house -- that is, in solitude -- but today I was kicked out of my house and went instead to a coffee shop where they had free wifi. That was the first time in a long time that I felt like an outsider. The other people at the coffee shop were definitely regulars, all conversing, and I was conscious of sitting in a corner by myself. Of course I was supposed to be working so that was ok...

Anyway: For me, having kids has been extrememly freeing. They're always an ice breaker! I have way, way more friends now than I did in college. They are 'friends by appt' as you say but I think I like that. I like planning to get together with them instead of being forced to deal with them because they're there.

Gwen said...

There is a social hierarchy sometimes to the schools your children attend. It's strange to watch, the way that the popular mothers have the popular daughters (and I am using these terms in the broadest, and therefore most shallow, sense), the way the mean girl cycle gets played and replayed all at the same time.

My 7 year old's Brownie troop had a psychologist come speak to them about popularity and friendship the other day, and my favorite take away (besides trying to make even numbered groups to avoid exclusion issues) was that you should think about friendship in terms of the way you are acting, not the way you are treated. I liked that. I should do that more, myself. I'm trying.

Julie Pippert said...

How true and accurate your characterizations are of both youthful and adult friendship and relating.

For public, I'd like something in between. Sometimes, in that chair, baby nearby, I want to be Alone. Unobligated.

Other times I'd like a cheerful hello and acknowledgment, particularly the days when my first person is MIA and I feel a bit invisible.

Where I live now does a fair job of that. Usually.

Eye contact, brief nod, or quiet or mouthed hey. If you reciprocate in a certain way, there might be a check-in, "How are you?" Otherwise a slight nod might indicate the interaction is at an end.

It's nice.

bubandpie said...

Carrien, Lisa - There's immense power in being oblivious to social hierarchies and boundaries. If you don't perceive them, then in many cases they really do cease to exist. I'm hyper-aware of social boundaries, I think - I find them very difficult to overcome.

Sue said...

I'm trying to figure out why this gave me chills. Very astute observations.

Friendships by appointment - so true. There are so many people I would like to be friends with, and could be friends with - if only I had the time.

minnesotamom said...

Well-stated, BandP. I miss the camaraderie that came with high school (I was in one of those rare groups that can kind of swing in and out of other groups--be friends with lots of people, but we were still our own group), the "daily life-ing together" that came with college and even the "I can still hang out 'til 2 am with my friends if I want to"-ness that came pre-baby. It's really hard to make friends unless you have appointments or great places to network. An even tougher one for Husband and myself -- couple friends.

Nora Bee said...

Yes, yes. It is so easy for us to ignore each other when the group is large enough. We all assume everyone is taken care of somewhere else. I think mamas with babies alone in public have it the roughest of all.

nomotherearth said...

I was that girl with the stroller in Cinnamon Gurl's example. Cliques are still alive and well in some places. Luckily, I've also found some great friends.

bren j. said...

Do you see these same boundaries/groups formed in your church?

Heather said...

I have always been shy and slow to make friends. I've tried to come out of this shell for my sons', dreading each play group and the though of trying to gain acceptance into those circles of moms who have been friends since diapers.

Janet said...

I have been contemplating taking the toddler to the indoor playgym in town because our exercise goes waaaay down in winter. I think the reason I have been avoiding is because, with my first two, I had a network of friends who would meet me there. Now I'll probably be the mom following my kid around while nobody talks to me.

I'm not sure why that bothers me, but it does.

Kathryn said...

On some level I think this happens throughout our whole lives. This class distinction. We all do it. Not intentionally, really. It just seems we are attracted to people we have the most in common with.

Moondance said...

You've exactly defined the way we socialize now - by appointment. I make dates weeks in advance, because after you figure out work commitments for four parents, sports and friends for three kids, and potentially babysitting, there isn't much time to hang our with your friends. In high school and college (for those who went), each kid is only responsible for herself, and can make plans at the drop of a hat. Now, I always expect my friends to have something better to do if I called right now. Maybe it's not true.

Also, we all are different. When I go out alone with my son, I am there with him. I seek no friends among the other adults. I already have a date. I never feel left out or bad if no one talks to me, and I rarely try to make friends. I suppose this would be different if I was home with him all the time, but I only get a few hours a week with him, so I want to be focusing on being with him.

Or else, I'm glad he's found someone to play with and I just want a few moments to myself. So, don't feel bad for all moms sittling alone at the park or the coffee shop.

Again, B&P, very thought provoking.

bubandpie said...

Bren - I have it on good authority (and do not doubt) that there are all kinds of inner cliques at my church, but I'm too far on the outside to know where the lines are drawn. Which is fine with me.

Lawyer Mama said...

Friendship by appointment is a very apt description.

In law school, the high school hierarchy repeated itself. For the first year we were in sections of 80. We shared all the same classes. It was maddening.

Chaotic Joy said...

"I know that sometimes she doesn't"

Oh, ouch. So true. I always thought I would grow out of those moments of insecurity and isolation, but I never completely have. And now as adults, we put up social barriers we didn't have when we were young. No longer able to spill our emotions or histories on a whim, making friends seems a longer more difficult process.

A process that seems to be circumvented here in the perceived anonymity of the blogosphere.

What an amazing post.