Prioritizing Friendship

In our busy lives, it's very hard to find the time to nurture our friendships. In my Coast-to-Coast Connecting Tour as the spokesperson for Pepperidge Farm adult cookies, I was able to interview women on the subject, and I found, more often than not, that women do value their friendships but have difficulty connecting. This troubles me - but I think there are ways to rectify this, by simply changing our thinking a little bit and re-prioritizing.

My findings were supported by the research study that Pepperidge Farm conducted, where they found that 80% of women surveyed wished they could spend more time with their girlfriends and 88% "agree with the statement that 'being able to talk regularly to my girlfriends is an important part of feeling healthy and balanced in my life." Even more interesting to me was the following question/result: When asked "If you had the opportunity, which of the following would you be willing to cut back in order to spend more time with your girlfriends?" The percentages were as follows:

66% House chores
54% alone time
35% hobbies
18% work
16% time w/significant other
8% family Time
10% none of these

To me, creating the "opportunity" to connect is a matter of prioritizing. And prioritizing is about balancing your schedule and your life in order to allow for those connections. The important thing to remember is that no matter how much time you carve out - a quick phone call, a coffee date, or a dedicated weekend catch-up - you make the most of it by listening, learning, and growing in your friendship. Don't make the mistake of keeping your guard up when revealing yourself to your friend will allow you to truly connect. Try to have an even amount of give and take, so that both (or all) of you get ample time to be heard. Go out on a limb and express yourself when you have the opportunity; tell your friend what she means to you. And finally, don't conclude the conversation or meeting without discussing when you might see or talk with each other again.

Spring Cleaning

With the early Daylight Savings change, and the warm temperatures in some parts of the country, it feels like spring has already sprung. For me, that means a whole lot more than t-shirts, flip-flops, and Popsicles. It means: SPRING CLEANING (and not just in the closet.) Actually, taking the time to assess the relationships in your life, and how you are spending your precious free time, can be a perennial activity. It's just that sometimes it takes a change of season or an outside source to really give you the kick that you need. Well, here's that kick:

I love my friends, and I clearly cherish the act of friendship and its give and take. I am also a firm believer that in the same way that we have learned as humans to accept the change of the seasons, we must also accept what is natural in relationships: that they ebb and flow. What is one year your most rewarding friendship ever, a person you have depended on through difficulty, who relies on you alone, may within months - as your lives change - evolve as well, into a friendship that takes more of a backseat to other life commitments. You may still like that person, but she might not serve the purpose that she once did. THIS IS OK.

Or: in thinking about your friendships, you may realize that someone you spend a lot of time with is actually a negative influence for you - not someone who doesn't provide "added value" to your life; rather, someone whose existence actually keeps you from being the person that you want to be, projects negative feelings upon you in an unsupportive way, or someone who you just plain don't enjoy being around. Chances are, whether that person knows it or not, your friendship is just as "toxic" to him/her. THIS IS OK.

Once we accept that these situations are, in fact, "OK," and that it's "OK" to need to "spring clean" your life, just as you would your closet (to make room for more up-to-date, fitting alternatives), we can be open to having lives full of positive, productive relationships.

Just make sure that you treat the separations with these folks with a little more sensitivity than you would, say, an old sweater. Because, of course, there is a difference between closets and cadres of friends: feelings. (Stay tuned on how to deal with these pesky feelings.)

The Giving Season

With the holiday season upon us (yep: family stress, Black Friday, all-Xmas radio), friendship can take even more of a back-burner than it does during the rest of the year. There's just so much ELSE to think about, right? Getting your annual quota done in the next month, scheduling in shopping for your Secret Santa, extra gym time to avoid the cake & cookies poundage - all seem a lot more pressing than pressing "Send" on that catch-up email or taking the time to check in with someone who you know will be there after the holidays are over. But I maintain that now is a better time than ever to reach out to a) someone you don't know or b) someone you don't know might be needing your friendship. You may be caught up and busy in your world, but there's probably someone out there who isn't - and isn't happy about it.

Project: think of one person who might fall in that category, and call him/her; make an extra dozen cookies when you're prepping for your work party for him/her; or find an hour to grab a coffee with him/her. Think of it as a bit of holiday charity: take a second to give of yourself in friendship, and you may give someone the holiday cheer he/she truly needed. The best part is that the good feeling you'll have from doing it will be more gift to yourself than any old wrapped package.

Are old friends the best friends?

When Lester Holt (channeling his producers) posed this question to us on the Today Show, I wondered, "Who really cares? Is this the most pressing question about friendship right now?" I mean: who really wants or needs to debate whether old friends are more loyal and true, or if they really don't stack up in comparison to fresh, new friends you can get all packaged and ready to go in your up-to-the-minute later life?

OF COURSE old friends can be some of your best friends. And I don't need to go on and on about how well they know you, accept you for who you are, don't require as much effort, allow you to be yourself, etc. for you to know WHY.

Last night, I gave a speech at Hockaday, the all-girls school that I attended from 1st to 9th grade in Dallas. I didn't graduate from Hockaday (rather, I graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, NH), and yet Hockaday still considers me an alumna, as with any girl who attended for any length of time. My friends from childhood were there to support me, as they had been when we were in grade school, except this time, instead of posting a "Good Luck" poster decorated with extra Jolly Ranchers on my locker, they toasted me with wine and creme brulee and bought copies of our book for me to sign. Them's is good friends, I tell you.

The most important lesson to learn about the wonder of keeping up historical friendships is to make sure you do and say and experience new things together, so as not to have your history be the ONLY thing that keeps you together.

But new - as in, more recent - friends can be just as loyal, supportive, close, and wonderful. And hey: they don't have any preconceived notions of who you are based on some age-old experiences. But it may take time to build trust between you to get to the level of old friends.

Basically, there are great things about all kinds of friends: old, new, circumstantial, situational, historical, family. None is "better" than the other. As long as we're honoring friendship at all, thinking about it at all, it's good.

Maybe next time, Lester will pose something a little more juicy about old friendships, like: "Is history enough to sustain a friendship?" Or: How do you keep an old friendship feeling young?" Next time.

An Update on "Update Your Experiences" (Rule #52)

Everyone has those great old friends that you may not see for a long time, but then, as the expression goes, you can just "pick up where you left off." They're friends from college, or from the trenches of a hellish job, or from a finite project or event that you worked on together. These friendships never suffered from a "break-up" or any kind of fight or falling out; rather, you grew apart because of circumstance - usually something very cut and dry, like a move.

But what of those friendships whose lapse you can't explain by a move to a new city or a change of job? With the publication of The Art of Friendship upon me, I've been encountering a lot of these lately - perhaps I've been honing my "friendship antennae" (a la Rule #2) to focus on rekindling old ones. Or perhaps I've been paying closer attention to friend-inspired issues. Whatever the reason, it's given me pause. Because, frankly, I've found this kind of rekindling is not that easy - and for someone who's proclaiming that she knows a thing or two about friendships, that's alarming.

To wit: I've recently renewed a friendship with two guys that we'll call "John" and "Gary." John, Gary, and I used to hang out a lot in Los Angeles about 8-10 years ago. We were single, had mutual friends, and we would go to bars, restaurants, or parties together on the weekends. At some point, I got a boyfriend, or entered into a new group of friends, and we didn't see each other as much, and then, never. Nothing happened - just life. I kept up with them through other friends, and saw them a handful of times over the years. Now we're all married, they have children, and our paths have crossed again. But when we first reconnected, it was truly awkward. I found myself asking, "Whatever happened to…?" or "Do you still…?" questions, and ran out of ammunition pretty quickly. Without any mutual experiences in such a long time, it was hard to zero in on conversation topics. Hell, we had missed an entire era of television, the creation of text messaging and Tivo, two presidencies. Trying to get caught up could only be done in major brush strokes (i.e. "1999 - not such a great year for me. 2000, much better.") And I wasn't about to ask questions like, "Where were you on 9/11?"

But it did get easier the next time we saw each other, and the next. And for the explanation of that, I can point to another Rule in the book - #52 - "Update Your Experiences." Only when we got beyond the "remember when" conversations and, instead, used our old ties as a nice, comfy basis for something new and improved, did things start getting interesting, fun, and - well - not awkward. Now - and I mean this in the best way possible - it's as if we never met. Or, at least, as if we are discovering some brand new, cool friends. It's actually better, in this case, that we didn't "just pick off where we left off."

A New Rule - Somewhere around #46 "Press Send"

Yesterday, I composed an email to 500 of my compatriots announcing the book, this website, and our upcoming appearance on "Today." It was a clearly promotional missive, and I stated it as such, mentioning that - oops! - we should have offered up another rule (probably somewhere around Rule #46 - "Press Send" about sending email) that states either a) "Support Self-Promotion" or b) "SPAM selectively." (Is the latter an oxymoron?)

It goes without saying that supporting your friends in both times of crisis and times of excitement is a major component of friendship. But asking too much of your friends in either situation is a tricky thing. It's important to know that you can reach out to your friends when you need them, but it's also important not to abuse this privilege. Some people lean too far in one direction or the other - constantly asking and needing and wanting from others, without ever giving back, or never asking for anything - even at the most dire moments.

I'm not sure why, but I am extra sensitive about neediness. I see sending an email like yesterday's out as 1) a way to let people know what I'm up to, especially if we haven't been in touch, and 2) a way to reach out for support without being too demanding about it. I agonized over the words but not over sending it. I think people want to know what you're up to and want to help you, but sometimes don't know how or don't have the time to figure it out. In some ways, asking for support - for something very simple and tangible, like buying a book or tuning into a TV show - gives otherwise busy but loving people a very easy way to be a good friend.

The worst thing that can happen is that they resent you for it, in which case, perhaps the friendship needs reevaluating anyway. (At least that's my rationale for the day.)