Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Making friends: what works and what doesn't (Part 1 of 2)

Every few years, investigative reporters uncover scandals of some religious or social movement which, under the pretence of improving the world, serves only to enrich its leaders. This sort of exploitative phenomena are not new. Abundant examples of similar cases can be found in sources from previous centuries.

Why do these abusive situations repeat themselves so frequently? What allows those harmful schemes to attract thousands of victims in different countries and historical periods? The response lies before our eyes: individuals feel alone and want to belong to a closely-knit group, even if that entails paying the highest price.

Men and women wish to be part of a community. We all desire to feel needed and appreciated. In a harsh city environment, a polite sentence or gesture may constitute a shocking act of generosity. Even self-serving, abject flattery can work once in a while in situations that have become so dehumanized that people are starving to hear a few nice words.

Isolation creates psychological vulnerability, which, on many occasions, turns into long-term dependence and subservience. Sociologists have come up with sophisticated theories to explain why people fall prey to heartless manipulators, but do we need a long chain of reasoning when direct observation can provide the answer?

The fundamental cause of such pernicious relationships is a false theory of friendship. It is a fact that, from infancy to retirement, men get together, talk, and cooperate. Although we see friendships begin everyday and fail every hour, in advantageous or disruptive conditions, we seldom take the time to reflect how the process works.

When it comes to making friends, commonplace advice has become integrated in the dominant culture to such an extent that it reigns uncontested. Traditional guidelines have been recycled and rehashed without much regard to veracity or scientific proof. Here are some bromides that are often served as entrée, main course, and dessert:
  1. Smile to random strangers.
  2. Do not express unpopular ideas.
  3. Avoid making controversial statements.
  4. Listen to others and never contest their views openly.
  5. Do not attract undue attention.
  6. Show interest in whatever stories people choose to tell you.
  7. Be flexible and avoid making clear-cut statements.
  8. Do not antagonize others by bringing up sensitive subjects.
  9. Cultivate small talk and avoid criticizing people.
  10. Do not embarrass others by pointing out obvious contradictions.
The list could be extended to comprise a hundred commandments. The issue is to determine whether those recommendations lead to friendship or to something else. What are the results of following such advice?

To be continued in Part 2

[Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com]

[Image by xiquinhosilva under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]

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