Why casual friendships matter

by Kristin on May 23, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by Squish_E

Jason and I had three social events this weekend, each of which brought together many “fringe” friends and acquaintances. It was a weekend of hugs—of “we haven’t seen you in ages!” and “we should make plans!”

I realize those sentiments can take two very different tones in our culture. There’s the fake approach: “We should make plans to get together (but thank goodness we never do).” But I don’t go for those social niceties. In my case, this town is full of people I would genuinely love to have over for dinner if only there were more hours in a day and more days in a month. And whenever I see these people around town, I feel a little stab of regret—where have the days and weeks gone? What are we missing out on by not knowing these smart, kind, interesting people better?

Bringing people together

The first event was a dinner we helped organize to support the community kitchen project Jason and I have been involved in for the past year. About 70 guests  came, as well as a couple dozen volunteers. I loved seeing the range of people coming together around a single idea, but each for their own reasons. There were people who are passionate about food, and people who want to see the community grow through unique business development, and others who had their own story about how their lives intersected with Dan, whose memory the kitchen is being built for.

The second event, later that evening, was a birthday party—an opportunity to celebrate the life of a friend, alongside many of the people whose lives have also been enriched by knowing him. This friend is someone whose life is pretty much dedicated to food, friends, and family, so we’ve shared many a meal with many different people around his table. Because of our closeness with him over the years, we’ve been introduced to dozens of other great people.

The third event, Sunday afternoon, was a crawfish boil at the home of friends Jason and I have known since we first started dating. Our relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years, but each time we find ourselves sitting down together (or in this case standing around a table piled with crawfish, cracking them open), the connection is real—we skip past the small talk and go straight for the things that matter in our lives.

Why casual friendships matter

Ultimately, though, here’s what these events made me realize (besides the fact that weekends can be busy and fun):

- People enrich us—especially when we open ourselves up to knowing lots of different people. It’s easy (and often very tempting) to say “I’m too busy—I can’t even keep up with the friends I have,” and then close ourselves off to others. It’s comfortable to stick with the people we know best—we already know their politics, their moods, their sense of humor and what’s going on in their lives. But I think if we do that, we’re shutting down so many paths of possibility.

- Taking time to have real conversations with people we hardly know stretches and sharpens us. Small talk is safe, which is why we so often resort to it. We want to hide the fact that we don’t remember the details of a person’s job or family, or we want to protect ourselves from asking a question that might end up being awkward (because the answer is “I got laid off” or “we’re getting a divorce” or “she’s undergoing chemotherapy”). But it’s the people we don’t know really well that often have the greatest ability to stretch up, opening us up to a different way of life, a new perspective, or a wider window of compassion. In order to get to that point, though, we have to be brave enough to drive the conversation there.

- It’s OK to get to know lots of people that you can’t develop regular, close relationships with. I used to feel guilty about all of the people I genuinely wanted to invite over for dinner but never did. I used to feel stressed by a “so many people, so little time” mentality, just as I get stressed when I look at all of the books waiting to be read. And when certain friendships have taken natural turns and faded, I’ve felt bad about it. But this weekend was like a snapshot into why I can and should celebrate all of these “Category 2 and 3″ friends (I wrote a post about “Unpacking the four levels of friendship” a while back). I think we need to learn to see these relationships for what they are and the value they add to our lives, rather than trying to force them into a different shape or shut them out all together.

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  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    This is such a wise post. I go back and forth with my friendships. I think I want all of my friendships to be deep and meaningful and life-changing or something awesome like that. However, you’re absolutely right to appreciate these different levels.

    This is why Facebook has been hard for me. I know so many extraordinary people that I’d like to keep in touch with on a more regular and deeper basis. Some days I wish that I could spend one day per week just writing notes to my friends, but then I’d never be able to be fully present with the people I’m closest to, which would be a huge loss. I may need to return to this post sometime soon!

  • http://somewiseguy.com ThatGuyKC

    Thank you, Kristin, for this reminder. I’ve been really busy with an MBA over the passed 2 years and dreadfully missed social activities with friends. Sort of feels like I’m going to get my life back this summer. Definitely looking forward to seeing people again.

  • Carmen

    I always appreciate (and learn from) your approach to friendship, K. I count it as one of the many gifts that you bring to my life.

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    A thought-provoking post, Kristin. I think you’re right – too often we have this wry attitude about casual friendships (insert the most common criticism of social media here). But there is something about those interactions that “stretches and sharpens us.”

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ed, that’s exactly what I’ve struggled with—I often wonder “Why bother meeting new people and making new connections when there just isn’t enough time in my life?” A paradigm shift of some sort was in order! I also really want to “be fully present with the people I’m closest to,” as you said. I think the key is to be intentional and committed to those close relationships, and spontaneous and ready connect when it works with the others.

    ThatGuyKC, being in school and working and having a family would be SO tough! I bet you have learned to “go with the flow” in many areas of your life, friendships included. It’s good to know they can be one thing to you now, and something else later. This is just a season!

    Carmen, that’s so sweet! Your friendship has always been a great example of staying close over the years and distance, without stressing ourselves out to make it happen. It takes lots of grace, understanding, and mutual love!

    Shawn, yes! Sometimes we like to think we’re connoisseurs and cultivators of everything deep and important, but there are so many meaningful ways to learn and grow—even in a 15-minute conversation with someone we hardly know at a party.

  • http://www.chambanamoms.com Laura (@chambanalaura)

    I’m learning to be grateful for the time I do have with certain people rather than the time I do not. I’d rather talk to my dear friend in Portland for five minutes than not at all. I’m trying to embrace that time isn’t the enemy, but let it be a friend.

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    This is a great take. On top of what you mention, I think it’s fair to say that close friendships — while extremely rewarding and important — can be taxing at times too because you’re so emotionally invested in your friend’s life. It’s nice to have a contrast of a casual friendship, which is almost always just a happy and never emotionally taxing friendship, as a complement to your social life.

  • molly

    Thanks Kristin, this is just what I needed. We are just saying goodbye to the nursery school where my kids have been for the last 3 years and although we are not going to be too far away, I am mourning the loss of that community. I know I will see some of them frequently, some occasional and likely some I will never see again, but I treasure the friends we have made, the parents, teachers and kids, and value their impact on my kids early childhood and my life as well. I’ll just enjoy the moments with them as they come.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Laura, that’s a wonderful way to look at anything! My mom and I had gotten into a pattern of always talking for an hour whenever we connected on the phone. The problem was that we started to think we *had* to have that much time to talk, so then we started talking less often. We finally decided to break that habit and focus on finding bits of time when we could connect and catch up more often. It feels much better!

    The Modern Gal, that’s a great point, about close friendships requiring more emotional energy. Having that balance—people to just have fun with—is a great refreshment.

    molly, that’s hard when you lose a whole community at once, because of a life change. It can feel overwhelming as you try to imagine how to keep all of those relationships intact—I’m sure taking them for what they are, appreciating what they’ve been, and letting them enter this next phase (whatever it is) is a relief.