“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” – Mark Twain
I’ve got some fine old friends, older than me even. On wonderful fellow, John, a retired high school principal now seventy-seven, met me a few days after my parents brought me home from Boulevard Hospital in Queens, New York. His two year old sister Nina took herself (seriously) across the street in Port Washington, Long Island to say hello to my mom and ask her if she could see the new baby. Within days, Nina’s mother Renee became friends with mom and soon both families were not just close neighbors but friends for life. Renee turned into the sister that my mother never had. John, Nina and I are still friends. They both sound the same, look remarkably much the same, and make me proud to have known them for so long. And laugh.
This sort of thing was in the back of my mind when I read a story recently about the great film actress from my youth (and much earlier), Leslie Caron. You may well remember her from classics like An American in Paris, Valentino, Daddy Long Legs (with Fred Astaire, and yes she was a wonderful dancer), Father Goose (with Cary Grant) and… wait for it… Gigi (with Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier). Among others. Ms. Caron was drop dead lovely to go with all that talent. American audiences loved her. Yet in real life she was painfully shy and often isolated.
The article, brilliantly and compassionately written by Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian, drew me right in. “Caron is birdlike and as elegant as ever [at 88]. Her hair is brown and bobbed with the now trademark white streak, eyes large and dusty blue, voice youthful and distinctly French. Her sentences are punctuated with a pealing laugh. From a distance, she sounds so full of joie de vivre. And she is, in a way. But when she tells her story, it is not quite so carefree.” In Caron’s own words, even as movie star, “I had a tendency to be melancholy.” Hattenstone also notes that during WWII, living in France, young Leslie became anxious and anorexic. Later on, alcoholic and lonely. Yikes, theLeslie Caron?
Then I read a fascinating article by Bill Murphy in Inc., called “People Who Embrace These 5 Simple Habits Have Very High Emotional Intelligence.” Hint: people who can honestly answer “yes” are well poised to make great friends. Are ya ready?
#1. “Do you know how to employ tactical conversational patience?” Translated, this means the art of sometimes keeping your mouth closed. Murphy calls it “calculated unease with a purpose.” Most of us, and yep this includes me, have been conditioned to try to fill in conversational gaps. Studying psychology didn’t undo that for me, but being a journalist has, at least to some extent.
#2. “Do you learn and practice casual phrases with precise, calculated meanings?” Here we’re talking about having a repertoire of go-to phrases to avoid saying reflexive and dumb stuff. Replace “I’m sorry” in your reflexive vocabulary with, “Thanks for understanding.” Or, instead of “No, I’m busy,” you can try “Thanks for asking, but I’m going to decline. Thank you for understanding.”
#3. “Do you use convergent responses?” Right, what in tarnation is Murphy talking about? In more plain spoken English, Murphy helpfully notes that he’s referring to “responses that suggest you’re going to do the work required to truly understand what someone else thinks or feels–to travel toward them, in a manner of speaking.” Ok, thatsa more better. The deal here is that it’s far preferable to parallel responses which basically presuppose that you already understand what your (potentially great) friend is talking about. You know those, and we all say them at times. “I’ve seen that movie.” “You bet.” “Totally get that.” Ring any bells?
#4. “Can you tell the difference between your needs and other people’s needs?” Per Murphy, “It has to do with figuring out how things look through other people’s eyes and adjusting what you have to say so that it fits their needs, not yours (which in turn can lead them to a result that fits your needs).” Maybe we should just call this good old fashioned empathy.
#5. “Do you always have another question?” Murphy posits that the most valuable information to be had from interviews usually if not nearly always comes at the end. And therefore, it probably happens in personal conversations as well. “Tell me more.” Easy peasy, right?
OK, Mr. Murphy gave us a great start on establishing and nurturing terrific friendships. I’d like to offer a few more suggestions, maybe bring us up to an even dozen in total.
For one thing, never and that means EVER do or say something behind your friend’s back. Even if they never find out about it, you will have betrayed a fundamental trust. And it serves to make you question the very foundation of the relationship. Here’s another. And say it like you really mean it. “You know, Sally Mae, I would take a bullet for you. At least a verbal one, and put myself at risk in doing so. Our friendship means that much to me.”
Volunteer to do something with this person that you would not ordinarily do or even seriously consider doing. Go with them to the theater, get sweaty with them in their garden, help them cook a special dinner for charity event. You get the idea.
Tell them how much they really mean to you. I have a special friend in Cambridge and we do this regularly. Sure, we like to goof around, go out to dinner and share private thoughts. But I try not to let more than a day or two go by without telling her how much I treasure our friendship. No matter where we go or what we do. No exceptions.
Frequently ask how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what’s going on in their lives. None of this “how’s it going?” stuff. That’s just a little too knee-jerk, a little too canned. Some things can well, like tuna. Other things don’t. I’m thinking spaghetti. Or clams.
Speaking of clams, don’t clam up unless it’s absolutely positively necessary with this great friend of yours, or potentially great friend. Try to remember, and this certainly goes for me as well, that wonderful close friendships help make life worth living. As a very special bonus, they may well make your life longer and much, much happier.
That’s all I got, my friends.