Fearless Friends Fight: 'Some Of My Best Friendships Began With Acrimony'

We all fear and avoid emotional pain, but sometimes even grown-ups need to be told to send a text message if they're going to stand someone up.
08/15/2012 08:52 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2012
two women arm wrestling at work ...
two women arm wrestling at work ...

"I quit, you bitches!" he yelled before ripping his apron off, throwing it on the ground, and storming out of Starbucks, leaving me with my rival to finish the shift. Neither of us were sad to see the guy go -- he was a grown man who replied, "Do I have to?" when asked to sweep or fetch a pastry -- but we begrudged being left alone together to finish the shift without anyone to break up our passive-aggressive feuding. Both of us were bitter that we had to be baristas in our mid-20s after earning college degrees and building professional resumes, but instead of bonding over our similarities, we complained to our boss about one another and swapped shifts to avoid working together. That evening, we finished our work with a minimum of conversation. As we were locking up the store, we spotted the quitter waiting for us in the parking lot, idling in a late-model convertible. He sloppily hurled a melted Frappuccino in our direction, did a few screechy loops around the parking lot, and sped off. It was such a hideous and absurd display that all my rival and I could do was go get a few beers and laugh it off.

Being on the wrong end of a Frappuccino brought us together. From that night on, we began an unexpectedly warm, if occasionally combative, friendship. It reminded me of when I made friends with the classmate who taunted me for wearing swing skirts and petticoats to elementary school, or was forgiven by the girl I nicknamed "Angela's Asses" in high school. I never moved during my childhood, and thus my friendships were torn and mended many times over. I grew close to people I was forced to know, people I couldn't escape, and people who couldn't escape me. (I've been told I'm an "acquired taste," which I'm pretty sure is a euphemism for difficult.) Some of my best friendships began with acrimony. Yes, familiarity breeds contempt, but sometimes even more familiarity erodes contempt.

Now that I'm a mother of young children and I work from home, I am not tethered to classmates, coworkers, or really anyone outside of my family, and I don't have much cause for confrontations. My primary means of communicating with friends and acquaintances is through Facebook, which is popular among work-at-home and stay-at-home parents who have few other social outlets. Facebook coddles my fear of interpersonal conflict. Users are only updated when their friend requests are accepted, not when others unfriend them or unsubscribe from their updates. And even if I were tempted to rip through my feed indicating my disdain for some acquaintances with a single click (I am), Facebook won't let me. Posts can only be "liked," not disliked. It's a reflection and amplification of American's tendency to bury negativity where only the paranoid will go looking for it, though it does make Facebook much safer to use if I've been drinking.

I thought I was getting along with a mother I met at the park. We had a regular playdate for our children until one day she messaged me to say that she was nondescriptly busy for the indefinite future. Shortly thereafter I noticed that she was no longer "liking" the photos of my kids I posted on Facebook (yes, I'm one of those parents) or commenting on the articles that I linked. I'll never know what I (or my kids) did to offend her, but I recognized the maneuver. I'd done the same thing to a friend who wrote on her blog about how she didn't like the decorations at my baby's birthday party and repeatedly invited me to gatherings where guests exchange their junk gold for cash. ("Sorry," I'd RSVP each time, "I still don't have any junk gold.") I didn't even have to be so bold as to unfriend her on Facebook. A combination of sudden, incurable "business" and unsubscribing from her updates got the job done. She's as good as dead to me. A relationship, be it with a spouse or a cubicle buddy, isn't proven until a conflict has been resolved, but that takes work, and most of the time it isn't worth it. I only fight with the dearest people in my life. There will always be someone else to arrange a playdate with.

The last time I really spoke my mind to a friend (unless you count an incident that culminated with me leaving a voicemail for a woman in which I repeated the word "redacted" in an angry tone and then unsubscribing from her Facebook updates) was after my Starbucks rival and I became friends and we had a series of conversations that began with, "I used to think you were..." or "It used to piss me off when you...." It was valuable information about how we presented ourselves and allowed us to examine why we'd judged each other so harshly. Back in the pre-Facebook days I had many of these conversations with former enemies at school or work, and though the revelations were painful to deliver and receive, they were instructive. I am perhaps a slightly less atrocious friend and colleague because of them. Maybe I'm not supposed to need social feedback now that I'm in my 30s, but I've unsubscribed from quite a few similarly aged people who could benefit from the criticisms that I'm too "positive" to give. We all fear and avoid emotional pain, but sometimes even grown-ups need to be told to send a text message if they're going to stand someone up or to knock it off with the humblebrags about their agents booking them on too many jobs. Though I might hear things that would hurt, at least I'd know what specifically I should be insecure about. (Is it that I'm not positive enough?)

If my Facebook feed is to be believed, Americans are so primed with inspirational messages superimposed on stock photos of dewy leaves that we're unflappably confident, doing little besides chasing our dreams and being our best selves. In fact, we're so busy cultivating inner peace and shutting out negativity that we can't be bothered to resolve our differences. Conflict is supposed to be beneath us ("haters gonna hate"), but I can't be the only person paranoid about what I did to upset the friends who disappeared like the playdate mom. If I don't know what I did to offend her, how will I grow? And how will all of those assholes I unsubscribed from ever know what (I think) they need to work on?

Eventually both my rival-cum-friend and I quit our jobs at Starbucks. No longer compelled by a common workplace to deal with our differences, we stopped speaking after a petty argument. If we were forced to reconcile, our relationship would never be easy. I know I'm missing out by not doing that kind of work on friendships anymore, but it is easier to only interact with people whose company I effortlessly enjoy. I pay for my lack of "drama" with less intense connections and a lingering suspicion that at any moment my friends could silently unsubscribe from me both on Facebook and in life. But that's okay. I saw a photo in my Facebook feed of a little girl playing in the woods with the words "Be your own best friend" superimposed on it in a zany font. So I'm going to do that, whatever that means. Yay me?

For more by JJ Keith, click here.

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