Friends, Acquaintances, and Toxic People

FamilyI have the strange, shrinking feeling that my thoughts and definitions on the three concepts are going to be drastically different than yours…and maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Sometimes a writer writes to teach, or perhaps do a little horn-tooting.  Other times, the impetus is to learn and best of all, have the reader engage the topic for himself.  That’s where I’m at.  Agree, disagree.  I make no claim to having the correct answers, only answers that work for me.

My first clue that I was in a generation (Boomer) that had a distinctly different vocabulary from what’s going on today was ten years ago, when I hired a young dude to work for me.  He declared that he had 840 friends on Facebook, only it wasn’t Facebook at the time it was My Space.  Not sure whether friends can be converted from one to the other.   Sick used to mean…well…that someone was sick or that something was in bad taste, as in a “sick joke”.   Bad used to be…  sigh.  Is it any wonder the generations have difficulty communicating?   And no one really had to scratch their heads and wonder what the definition of friend was.  Now, friending has become a verb.  You friend someone with a click on the keyboard and voila, you’ve just made a friend.  I’ve been asked to friend the people who sold me my Kubota tractor and the bank where I deposit my checks.  You get the idea.

The concept of friend used to mean more and in some cases a LOT more.  Pamela’s and my quiet definition was this:  A friend is someone you can call at three in the morning, say:  “I’m in trouble.  I need you to get over here,” and all you hear back is, “I’m on my way.”  It comes down to trust.  The corollary to that bit of bravado is you don’t make that phone call unless you truly are in deep shit.  That’s a big part of friendship…trust, and respect and I am happy and proud to admit that I do have a small handful of friends to whom that yardstick applies.  Oh…before I forget, it works both ways.  If I get that call, I’m yankin’ my pants on and heading for the door.

But that’s a far cry from clicking a button on Facebook and having friends whom you’ve never met or even talked to.  And, there’s a vast field of a thousand shades in between.

Though your categories will differ as to the specifics, I have childhood friends, high school, college, friends from business, the Air Force, gay friends, black friends, republican and democrat friends and well, you can see that you can divide this down ad infinitum.   Could I call them up at three in the morning?  Sure, though the result of that call would be mixed at best, and I’m being kind.  The truth is, and no one wants to admit it, is that true friends are pretty rare.  I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Toxic People: Let me get what is for me an easy category out of the way quickly.  I was discussing this topic just yesterday with…a friend, and I use the word accurately.  Toxic People can be anyone: an associate, a sibling, parent, tennis partner, and the thing that makes them toxic is simple.  Whenever you’re around them, you somehow come away feeling stupid, bad, ugly, or in some way, lousy about yourself.  If you suspect you have a toxic person in your life, one who consistantly  makes you feel bad about yourself, it’s time to head for the door…quietly.

I even have a little trick for you and I’m dead serious.  Many many times, it’s hard to separate from toxic people.  Perhaps they derive some kind of perverse enjoyment in making your life miserable and they don’t want to lose the fun.  What it takes is simple, but difficult to do.  You don’t want to fight them, because when you do, it becomes a slug fest.  Take the hit, allow them to get the last word and that’s key.  If you’re willing to let their last insult or bit of toxin be the last thing, you’re free.  And from then on, don’t read the e-mail, snail-mail, or answer that phone call.  Like the nasty joke about Hong Kong Dong, the toxic relationship will eventually die due to lack of oxygen.  Life is too short to have toxic people making you feel eternally worse.

Acquaintances:  Well, like everyone else out there, Pamela and I have a whole bunch of acquaintances, some thinly wrought, others right on the verge of being excellent friends, and everything in between.  We’ve lived in five different houses in five different parts of the world and had many, many wonderful acquaintances.  But when they moved, or we did, though we promised to keep in touch, it was often understood that we were proximity friends…I’m coining a term here (?)  And it is, to-be-determined only over time whether that friendship will blossom into true friendship.

Re-Setting the Meter:  Last time I checked, I wasn’t able to locate anyone on this planet who is perfect.  And my basis for friendships has nothing at all to do with any sort of search for perfection.  In my opinion, we all have feet of clay, we all misspeak at one time or another, and we all just flat-out screw-up sometimes.  That’s part of being a member of the human race.

When it inevitably happens that a friend does something really, really dumb or insensitive or harsh, we reset the meter.  That’s Pam’s and my in-house term.  We press the restart button and press on.  And on many occasions, when we’ll meet some potentially very good friends, I’ll make a little short speech, to that effect.  It goes a little like this:  If we hang out for months and years together, there’s a 99.5% chance I’m going to misspeak, put my foot in my mouth and say something I shouldn’t have.  I apologize in advance for that.  The point I want to make is, I will NEVER set out to just hurt your feelings for the hell of it.  It’s not how we do business.  It’s not how we’re wired.  And I hope you will be able to reset your meter if and when we screw up.”   Most of our friends have something that is really not in alignment with us.  My eye doctor, is of a vastly different political persuasion than I am.  We tread lightly, and I always try to make the equation balance.  It works.  He’s smart, funny, and on everything else we agree.  With all our friends there are differences.  Those differences are to be celebrated…  We can all learn from each other.

A couple of sidebar observations:  I have three furry black-and-white creatures (Boston Terriers not skunks) who I’d chop off a finger for, if it came to it.  We never speak, least not in English and they’re the complete opposite of toxic friends.  Sometimes they are the only ones who know when I’m hurting…and they ALWAYS make me feel better.

Friends of the Opposite Sex:  Someone once said,  If you’re a guy it’s impossible to have a true friendship with a woman, the reason being there’s always some form of potential sexual tension there.   I don’t believe that’s true anymore, but I think there’s a caveat to be aware of.  We are, after all, in addition to being human beings, we are animals of the human kind and sexuality is a powerful narcotic.  Beware and realize sex has taken down many an intelligent, gifted and otherwise honorable person.  Pamela and I have been together since the 60s, very, very happily so.  But even now, when one or the other of us makes some new close friend of the other sex, eyebrows raise and it’s the subject of scrutiny.  I think that’s appropriate.

Lastly, your spouse as friend.  If you’re really, really lucky, and really careful when you’re dating and getting married, you get to have a gold-standard-friend for life.  And when you have that, you’re already there.  You don’t need a whole lot more.

I wrote this knowing that this is only my perspective.  I’d like to hear someone else’s wisdom on the subject.  We can all learn from each other.




2 Responses to "Friends, Acquaintances, and Toxic People"

  1. Carol says:

    Henry, I agree with most everything you’ve said. The only thing I’d like to add is I have a wonderful friend who has been there for me. We got together often and that was great until she was going thru a rough time in her life & everything was very negative. I wanted to be a good friend and be there for her but I was not the person that could help her to come back to the “good side”. I stopped seeing her as often and she found others that were able to help guide her back. We still see each other, not quite as often as we used to but that has a lot to do with scheduling at this point. I enjoy being with her again. I’m glad I didn’t write her off, or try to fix her. I’m also glad she’s in my life.

  2. Veronica Machnicki says:

    Henry I am not sure how you got my email address, and how I became your “friend” by accident?? But I love your take on “Friends, etc”. I try to share this type of wisdom with my 6 daughters, and 14 grandchildren, but often fall short, maybe I will share this enlightened version.

    I have not read any of your books but am about to.


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