Monday, June 4, 2018

Frenemies & tall poppies

Among the many, many things I haven't figured out in my 50 plus years on Earth is the whole frenemy thing. It takes me months, sometimes a few years, to figure out that a friend isn't really a friend. Have you?

My first frenemies were my first childhood neighborhood friends, two girls who, individually, were lots of fun, but when it was the three of us, suddenly, things changed: they would look at each other and eye roll over something I said, particularly something honest and important to me, like a book or movie character. Something one of them enjoyed with me, like watching and laughing hysterically over The Wizard of Oz, became something to deride and deny just days later when the three of us came together - "I don't watch movies for babies. I can't believe you made me watch that." I'll never forget their delight in telling me their new nickname for me: "The Big Word Mama": they thought my vocabulary was too big. Yes, really. So I quit talking around them about the books I was reading, and for a while, kept pretending playing with Barbies was fun - until Star Wars came out and I realized movies were, indeed, infinitely more fun than those two.

Thankfully, it's been really easy to find all sorts of wonderful friends since then, and over many years. I've no idea what happened to those first to frenemies. And I don't really care. Except that versions of them do keep showing up every few years and I never seem to recognize them early enough.

I talk a lot. A LOT. About politics, travel, movies, books, my dog, my cat, my yard, my drug-dealing neighbors, a dream I had this week... whew, it's a LOT. And that's who I am. And I'm okay with it, and I'm okay with people who discover it and slowly walk away because it's too much for them. I'm not everyone's cup of tea. I'm often not my own cup of tea.

But I also listen. I actively listen. I ask questions about whatever a friend, in that moment, thinks is important: their family problems, their job problems, their neighbor problems, their dreams, their own travels, whatever. I could tell you a great deal about everyone I have ever called friend. I am genuinely interested in the lives of my friends. That's why they are my friends: I find them interesting.

I might start to realize all is not as it seems in a friendship when the interruptions start, those little aside, "just kidding" digs. I start to tell a story and hear a not-so-quiet, "Here she goes..." - not said to me, but to someone else, yet most certainly meant for me to hear. And then, if I do stop look over for an explanation, I hear "Oh, I'm just kidding!" Or I say how much fun I've just had on an incredible camping trip and as I'm waxing poetic, hear a decisive "I hate camping." I stop. Because the comment is made so I'll stop. Why was it necessary to say, specifically and solely in response to a person's love for something, that you hate it? It's a power thing. "Your opinion is invalid... even stupid." When someone is enthusing about a movie or book they love that I hate, I usually clam up, because I know how weird it can feel to be so enthusiastic about something and have someone throw cold water on it. I won't share my opinion in those situations, where someone or a group talking about how much they loved some movie I hated, until I'm asked, "What did you think?" And, being who I am, I usually apologize for not liking said movie or book and will say all sorts of qualifying things like, "But I totally understand why people like it..."

At the time I hear that little insult comment, I never think, "Frenemy! Run!" I should, but I don't. I never realize that obvious sign that the person dislikes me, and that many of our outings together, outings I've enjoyed, have been followed by a rant to another friend later about how arrogant I am, how "she thinks she knows everything," or whatever the criticism. I find out only when the person spectacularly unfriends me in an email or phone call or as I'm passing by their yard, walking my dog. I've never needed Facebook for that attempt at frenemy humiliation - it happened long before the Interwebs. I just wish I could see it coming and start distancing myself instead of getting blind-sided.

So, here I am, more than 40 years after my first frenemy experience, and I'm having exactly the same experience. It's mind-blowing. There's even a new Star Wars movie out right now. It's pretty good, by the way...

Part of the reason I'm so frequently blind-sided by frenemies is because I walk around in life convinced no one talks about me because, really, who cares what I do or what I am or what I think? I'm nobody special, I do nothing worth talking about, not really. It may sound sad but, in fact, it's freeing: I don't think I'm worth talking about and, so, I usually don't worry what other people think. My general, constant feeling of unimportance in relation to others and what they spend their time thinking about has made me the greatest ex-girlfriend ever, because whenever I got dumped over the years - and I got dumped a LOT - I would just slink away with no attempt at a scene, no attempt to hang on nor punish. Friends would encourage me to do the late-night-drive-by-the-apartment, or the call-and-hangup or let's-go-where-you-know-he-will-be, and I would refuse: it's over, and I shall be under this rock until further notice. I sat through Fatal Attraction absolutely appalled, horrified and bewildered - why is she doing this?!?

But, of course, I hear people criticize other people, often people that are supposed to be our mutual friends, friends that we had a great time with just a few days before. They criticize how they raise their kids, they criticize how they spend money, they criticize their ideas, they criticize their relationships, they criticize their life choices, and on and on. And if they talk so much about other people, about our mutual friends, that means they talk about me. Which, again, I ask, really, why? There are SO many more interesting things to discuss... but also, why do I never see that frenemy warning sign early enough?

The big tell in the frenemy character is their utterance of a particular criticism.

I don't like her. There's just something about her I don't like.

That's it. No explanation. I ask, but I don't get details. I used to think, well, I guess she reminds them of a teacher that was really mean or a neighbor that was rude or the girl some boyfriend dumped them for. But I've realized that's not it. They don't say why because they don't want to admit what it is that they don't like about them, because they know it's a ridiculous reason, like jealousy: they hate that person's success, or their intelligence, or their terrific body, or their wealth, or their perceived privilege. Maybe they know that and just won't say it. Or maybe they just aren't willing to really think about the why.

And then there's that reason for disliking someone that has always confused me:

She thinks she's so smart / better than everyone / so special so perfect.

My response is usually, "Does she? How?" And I don't get told something like, "She believes in an aristocratic hierarchy and she's at the top" or "She believes she's genetically superior to everyone because of her DNA", both explanations of which I would find repulsive but a good source for the label. No, the response is something like, "She just acts like it."

It's an insult that says much more about the person saying it than the subject of the insult.

Why aren't women allowed to be confident? Self-assured? Ambitious? Why is a woman with knowledge and expertise and ideas expected to keep all of it to herself, or to reveal such gently, in a non-threatening way? Why are men allowed to be openly opinionated and to enjoy debates and spout ideas while women who do these things get branded as She thinks she's so smart / better than everyone / so special so perfect?

There's an aspect of many cultures that, in the English-speaking world, is called the tall poppy syndrome: in a field of poppies, it will be the tallest poppy that gets cut down, because it stands above the others - not because it really is superior, but because it dares to be taller, to be noticed. Tall poppy syndrome is the desire by people to cut down a person they are jealous of or feel threatened by because of that person's abilities or achievements.

That statement, She thinks she's so smart / better than everyone / so special so perfect, is a perfect example of tall poppy syndrome. So what if she thinks she's smart? How in the world does that affect you, personally? As long as confidence or expertise doesn't keep someone from seeing something or being aware of something that they really should be seeing, or doesn't encourage them to engage in destructive behavior, who cares?

Some version of you think you are smarter than me has been the insult of choice by friends unfriending me. And I've no idea what to say in response.

Even up to the moment someone dumps me as a friend, I still think that person is smart - often smarter than me. And interesting - I think of my friends as very interesting, even the ones that decide they don't like me. That's why they are/were my friends: they have interesting insights. They are windows into worlds I don't experience: parenthood, small business ownership, teaching, being able to produce something by hand, and on and on. As I said, I could say so much about every friend, even the frenemies, about their dreams, their insecurities, their interests, their frustrations, their families. I really do listen.

Oh, well, eventually, I hope I'm going to get this right and not be blindsided by a frenemy. But if not, so be it. I guess giving someone something to talk about brings joy on some level. Hope it helps.

Meanwhile, the next Star Wars movie comes out in 2019.

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