Less Substantial Friendships

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

(Read More From My Blog)

I was recently watching one of those Sunday Morning programs. You know, the kind that always has a soft-squishy piece as part of its presentation. This time that piece was focused on people and their pets. The ‘reporter’ interviewed a series of people whose lives seemed to be focused on non-human companions. One after another they talked about their pets as if they were people.

The part of the program that caught my attention was in interview with a psychologist. His task was to interpret the lives of the people who were being interviewed. He made an interesting observation which resonated with a number of coaching engagements that I have had recently. “People turn to pets because they are experiencing less substantial friendships.”

That comment caught my attention. I wrote it down and have been thinking about it ever since. It certainly resonates with some observations that I have made about the evolution of American social society. For some time I have believed that social media is equivalent, in fundamental ways, to having pets.

  • You don’t have to be genuinely engaged. Most people take a rather casual approach to defining their relationship to pets. It is almost always anthropomorphic and self-ratifying.
  • You don’t have to establish a finely textured relationship. Most owner/pet relationships are shallow and untextured.
  • The purpose that might drive the life of the pet is incidental. In a prior life, I trained and used border collies to herd sheep. I experienced the true joy that dogs can feel by having a purpose. Most humans render their pets purposeless except for serving as an emotional sop – a form of indentured servitude.
  • Pet relationships can become an alternative to the deeper, messier relationships with humans. People retreat from society into an imaginary society populated with charactitures and anthropomorphic avatars.

The thought that came out of the Sunday morning program and the comment by the psychologist was that friendships – particularly those contextualized within what is called social media – are, in the lives of those who collect them, more like pets than substantive friendships. The extremes are the collectors of ‘friends or ‘connections’. I once met a person who bragged about having over twelve thousand of them. He was part of a group that promoted an event by reaching out to their contacts. You guessed it. His network produced no results. The proverbial ‘mile wide and inch deep’, he had no real relationships with any of them. Just a list to brag about.

The question that comes to mind is ‘what the underlying driver for this trend’. Are we less able to build and maintain deep friendships or is the evolution of modern society somehow making that increasingly difficult. Of course, it’s not an either or kind of thing. In some ways it all may be a self-fulfilling prophesy that began with the flight of the baby boomers from traditional society.

The seminal issue that comes out of some of my life coaching engagements is highlighted by what one of my clients recently told me. “I have looked back over my life. It is not cumulative. I seem to be running in place. When I look for close friends in times of stress, I find none. Neither am I called upon to help. Is it because I am not worth being a friend to? Or is it because I don’t know how to be a friend?”

When we made an assessment of this person’s range of connections, this is what we found:

  • Almost all of them were shallow relationships with infrequent contact and undefined dynamics
  • Most of them were instrumental – based on the pursuit of individual benefits through association
  • None of them involved detailed understanding of the other person
  • Interactions were, when they did occur, stylized
  • None of these people ever reached out to him for help during times of crisis and he didn’t feel able to do the same
  • Most of them were through social networks
  • In other words, he had no real friends who cared about him and whom he cared about

What struck me was that these were relationships that robots could have with each other. It seemed to me the very opposite of the premise underlying the 2004 movie ‘I Robot’. There, the struggle was for robots to become more human-like. Here, it seems the very opposite was the trend. Humans striving to become more robot-like.

I remember the struggle that many of an earlier generation experienced. Those who watched the TV series Star Trek felt the dilemma. Torn between the messy emotionalism of Captain Kirk and the safe, pristine logic of Mister Spock, the debate raged. Some believing that the world would be better if it were Spock-ified. Others seeing Spock as the threat to human society.

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