Sunday, January 08, 2006

Mean Friends

Have you ever had a mean friend?

A mean friend is someone whose mean streak is obvious enough that you can see it, even though you try to tell yourself that maybe it's not as bad as it appears. Maybe she gossips (not harmless gossip, but hurtful gossip). Maybe she likes to exclude people. Or maybe you suspect that she's using you for something, perhaps because she feels you have the right social connections.

The thing with mean friends is that they are often some of the most fun people to hang out with. They are usually doing cool things. They like the same things you like. They make you laugh. And their meanness is never directed at you, and in fact it isn't even always on the surface, so that many times you can forget about it or pretend it isn't there.

But I always feel unsure about whether or not it's safe to relax around my mean friends. Maybe I'm just channeling middle school, but I feel like mean friends will eventually turn on you, so it's best to keep a distance and not let them get too close. At the same time, when I'm with a mean friend, I usually worry that I'm not cool or interesting or exciting enough to keep their interest, and that I have to be careful or they'll drop me in search of someone more cool or interesting or exciting.

I remember one really telling moment years ago with a mean friend who was also beautiful and popular. I can't remember the context, but we were both at the same academic conference, and it was clear to me that she was trying to limit our dinner group to only those whom she deemed "cool." I said something to her about not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, and tried to elicit some compassion: "you remember what it feels like to be left out, right?"

She gave me a blank look in return.

And then I understood. At least some mean friends, perhaps more often the beautiful and popular ones, have always been the gatekeepers. They've never been the ones who were themselves kept out. This may make them even more dangerous because they really are capable of empathy in only certain contexts or up to a certain point.

I tend to have mean friends periodically. The thing is, I really do wonder sometimes if they use me or if I use them. Generally, I don't keep in touch with mean friends if I or they move away. I am aware when someone is occupying the mean friend slot in my life, and I think on some level I'm treating that friendship as a filler, as temporary.

On the other hand, however, I have had quite a few friends who started out as mean friends and turned out to be just regular friends, even, on occasion, wonderfully nice friends. Sometimes it was simply that I had been wrong about them, and they weren't actually mean. Other times, it seemed that they changed and stopped being mean. I honestly don't know which of us it was who changed. Perhaps it has always been a matter of my perception and my judgment.

And of course, since we've all had our moments of engaging in hurtful gossip, excluding people, and using people, it sort of begs the question: have I ever been the mean friend?

1 comment:

anne said...

A variation on the "mean friend" is the "heartless bastard." You know the type...witty as all get-out, often very sexy too, yet there's a knot in your stomach as you laugh along with everyone... Gail and I are trying to make it a point to avoid the heartless bastards in life, regardless of how witty they are, or what great parties they give.

If you get too close to a heartless bastard, suddenly you realize that (to paraphrase Jennifer Aniston of all people) "there's a 'sensitivity chip' missing." They're out for themselves and they're not really hiding it. Because they're honest, and they value honesty above almost anything... even if it means "honestly" telling their boyfriend/girlfriend every excruciating detail of the fling they just had with her/his best friend.

The strange thing about heartless bastards is that they have so many friends who are really nice, who will choose for years to put on the "mute" switch when the heartless bastard starts complaining their dad left them a lousy inheritance, bragging about screwing someone over, insulting their friends "honestly." They are a ball of contradictions... they may care about left-wing issues passionately, yet treat their own mothers caddishly.

It is harder to have sympathy for them than for "mean friends" because I usually feel a mean friend can change at some point. Heartless bastards? Forgetaboutit.