Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Practical English Usage: "Friend" (22 Nov. 2012)

           Call him "Bob."

            When Bob and I and a bunch of other people were in high school, my parents went away for a weekend, and I threw a party.

            You know the set-up here, but I'll note (1) that this clichéd high school party was thrown the end of the 1950s and that at that time girls in the State of Illinois were considered women at 18 and mature enough to buy liquor legally and (2) that cheap booze in Chicago tends to be really, really cheap.

            So my guests got very, very drunk, and Bob got very drunk and, as we called it, "sick." I gave Bob Pepto-Bismol but soon found myself holding his head as he figuratively puked his guts up, and quite literally puked out his new false tooth amid the pinkish mess in my parent's toilet, a revolting mess I flushed away.

            And Bob looked up at me, and smiled — and I realized I just flushed away his new, expensive, tooth and had no, repeat no intention of recovering it — Bob looked up at me and smiled and said, very carefully, as drunken guys will, "Thank you, Rich. You are a real fren'; and there's nuthin' more importan' than frenship."

            Okay, we can argue about things as important as friendship, but I'm sure there's little more important since Bob and I are still friends these many years later, and remained friends after Bob and I found ourselves on opposing sides of the nasty American political conflict over Vietnam. (Bob volunteered to fight in the War; I opposed it.)

            So, for a point of correct, practical English usage — as a first order approximation —the word "friend" can be defined (in part) as, "someone who'll hold your head while you puke."

            A friend is also someone who'll pick you up at the airport, or drive you to the emergency room — and wait around the ER to drive you home and/or call your family. A friend will check your apartment if you're away, water your plants, take care of your pets.

            Now you may be closely acquainted with someone from whom you wouldn't expect such gestures of friendship; you may be friendly with such a person — but that person is not your friend. If you know the person just on Facebook, if the person is on the phone trying to sell you something — such a person is not your friend.

            To talk about Facebook friends or "your friends at Cyberdyne Systems" devalues an important term and contributes to another loss: our loss of ways of talking about people we deal with and know fairly well but who aren't are friends, people we don't dislike or like, but are just sort of there.

            Say, "I don't like him" or "She's no friend of mine," and you've said something pretty negative. As the cultural anthropologist Michael Moffatt noted in Coming of Age in New Jersey about the Rutgers University students he studied, "Everyone ought to be friendly," at least friendly to people they know — and friendly in the American manner.

            The idea, though, isn't limited to college students in the USA in the late 1970s and 1980s (copyright for Coming of Age: 1989).

            In William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (ca. 1599), Brutus wants to know how his slave and emissary Lucilius was received by Brutus's ally Cassius and is told Cassius received Lucilius "With courtesy and respect enough, / But not with such familiar instances" — wait for it; Shakespeare will explain the rather high-flown "familiar instances" — "Nor with such free and friendly conference / As he hath used of old." Cassius didn't show what the Rutgers students would call "friendliness," which Brutus interprets as a decline in true friendship, friendship as a variety of love. As Brutus pedantically explains, "When love begins to sicken and decay / It useth an enforcèd ceremony" (4.2.14-21).

            Indeed, which is why the Rutgers student culture included "busting," what we in North-Side Chicago in the 1950s called "cutting," and which scholars of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture call flytings. (You want some high-power wonkish cred? Do the Dozens in Old English!)

            Still, as we should be learning from the degeneration of American political discourse generally, there's a whole lot to be said for cool correctness: treating people "with courtesy and respect," even if it's "enforcèd ceremony" and no more.

            One time I mediated a dispute between a professor and a student — that was my main service for the Miami University English Department: I handled student complaints — and it turned out to be a very simple case. "You two don't like each other," I said to them. What they needed was permission, so to speak, not to like one another. "You don't have to like each other; you just have to deal with one another for the next couple months."

            The student was much too good a good Catholic boy to dislike a teacher; and the teacher was far too professional is dislike a student — my tone here is snarky — and both were Americans feeling the pressure for friendliness. I gave them permission not to like each other, even to actively dislike each other — and could type out in a couple minutes a contract about how they would behave to one another: a couple months of unenthusiastic, cool correctness.

            So I'm going to push respect, courtesy, and occasionally "enforcèd ceremony." If you want to be friendly with me, you'd better know that I go by "Rich" not "Richard" and that I assume anyone who addresses me as "Richard" doesn't know me well enough to call me by my first name and probably (hell, undoubtedly) wants something from me. If you want to be friendly, you should be open to actually becoming my friend: which means I'd expect to perform acts of friendship for you and would expect reciprocity: as in holding my head if I puked, picking me up at the airport — etc.

            Not as much as among Elizabethans or earlier, but to some extent, I expect friendship to be one of the varieties of love (usually asexual) and to exist not as a mere attitude but an evolving history of friendly deeds.

                    People who've moved away, or I've moved away from: these people can still be friends. The people I know just from Facebook or on line are potential friends for me, or for you, but aren't friends yet.

            There are a lot of people I'll treat with courtesy and respect and what we can legitimately call a friendly manner. But real friends? Expect only a few.

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