Many TV series, books and movies feature cute and fun everyday dramas of a circle of friends. For example TV series like Beverly Hill 90210, Friends, Ally, and The Big Bang Theory.
I’m not sure how realistically they portray how it works, but a circle of friends seems like a common expectation for a normal social life. For me, that expectation has caused a lot of agony in the past which still lurk somewhere in the fringes, saying your life is not good enough.
What a Circle of Friends Is
My understanding of a circle of friends is a group of friends who all know each other well and typically have known each other for a long time; so they are a bit like a sort of family but not usually family. They are usually within the same age range and socio-economic segment. They hang out together often, maybe almost every day, in regular rendezvous locations such as a specific sofa set-up in a cafe or shared flat. They have shared habits, rituals and history together and know what to expect from each other.
A circle of friends typically comprises 3 to 8 members, who may not all go perfectly well along. Just like in a family, members have to be tolerant of each other across even seemingly incompatible differences and find diplomatic ways to cope with incompatibilities. Contained friction is OK (and fictive contained friction tends to be hilarious). Open serious conflicts and exclusions are not OK, since that would tear apart the group.
My Circles of Friends History
The time in my life where I would say that I had a circle of friends was in my pre-teen years from around 11 to 14 (on and off). The circle comprised my two friends in school and my best friend outside of school, who lived in my neighbourhood. I would usually play with just one friend at a time, but they all knew each other and there were times when we were all together and involved in a joint activity, such as our Dog Club, climbing the school’s roof, or trail rides.
My friends could play with each other independently of me; which is another sign of friends being a circle rather than just individual friends. We also had extra fringe members who occasionally joined the Dog Club or trail rides, for example, such as an additional schoolmate and my little brother (reluctantly).
Being part of a little peer group made me feel socially successful just like cool kids in books and on TV, especially when we met in my home. My mother was bubbly and smiling when I had my friends over, such as when we had a Dog Club meeting on the balcony. She casually strayed out references like “one of all Anna’s friends” to her friends or family; hinting that I had many friends. I think it made her feel like a successful mother.
It hinted to me that having many friends was an important success criteria. It was also embarrassing because it cast me as someone I couldn’t possibly live up to being. I was actually socially at my peak performance with a small circle of friends, but never many friends.
In one of the same years, my best friend and I often hang out with my little brother and his best friend; I considered that another circle of friends (sort of). My best friend and I also spent a summer on a roof hanging out with some of her admirers / shifting romantic candidates. That seemed like a kind of circle of friends too, although it wasn’t really, because I was more her attachment whom the boys accepted because my best friend wanted me around, and they wanted badly to be around her.
When a Group of Friends is Not a Circle of Friends
In early teenagehood my circle of friends, which had centred around “childish” interests and play, had already vanished as my friends gradually dispersed into new out of sight friendship circles through school transitions and youth activities and just general teenage clique dynamics, while I fell behind and sort of gradually dropped out of school too.
For a while I tried desperately to stamp up a collection of friends – like long forgotten pen pals, counting in my cousin, trying to squeeze friendships out of far out acquaintanceships, trying to make new friends through youth activities and to reconnect with my old childhood friend, Elsa*. I succeeded with the latter and for some years to come, Elsa was my main friend although I didn’t always see her often.
I may have looked like a regular member of Elsa’s circles of friends, but I wasn’t really: I was her attachment. I didn’t know how to socialise with her friends without her and felt terribly awkward with them when she was not around; having no idea what they were all about. They were nice to me, and I think I just came across as Elsa’s extremely shy childhood friend.
The way I knew how to socialise with Elsa when I was a teenager was by always letting her have the lead and define who I was. I mirrored her values, sub culture, dress code, humour, opinions; I even copied her hand writing style**. We appeared like very close friends, but it was all on her terms. My social identity was in her pocket and had to be guided by her in all social situations; otherwise I had no clue what to do.
Eventually she had enough of my social helplessness and problems I think; having to bail me out of loneliness again and again in addition to trying to manage her own difficulties***. She gave up and drifted off, and I was all by my myself with not only no circle of friends, but few social encounters at all as I largely gave up for a long time.
I’ve always tended to have individual friends when having friends. Individual friends are friends who are not friends with each other and who typically live far away from each other and from me. In some cases, they do know each other and call each other “friends”; but rarely see each other and rarely or never meet up as a group. So they are friends but not a circle.
That’s the kind of friends I have now, too. One by one; in different places, from different life eras and unknown to each other. Friends I rarely see. Friends who usually have each their own circles of friends. The ones who don’t know me closely tend to assume that I have a circle of my own too; sometimes politely fishing for cues about the standard social life they presume I have. My presumed circle of friends.
But I don’t have that, because I’m more like someone who lives on an island. My island has complex infrastructure in some locations but just bare fields in other, and just a slow old ferry route to the mainland with all its fast & wide infrastructure. To some people, my island seem so absurd that they can’t get their head around its reality. Why build complex infrastructure in spots where there are no people? And why isn’t there a big multi-lane bridge to the mainland instead? So they keep asking: are you sure there is no circle of friends on your island? Like, not family or animals or something like that, but real friends.
The impression I’ve been getting from mainstream culture and peers (especially as young) is that everyone must have a circle of friends lest they are social losers. That caused a lot of damage earlier on by making me feel like a loser, and by diverting my focus from developing a more realistic friendship model that might have a better chance of working for me.
I do think that friends are important for quality of life. Certainly that is the case for me. Being with and listening to other people can give access to different perspectives on life, inspiration from outside of one’s own head, inclusion and awareness of opportunities; and just feeling like a participant in the world.
A social circle ads something extra: it promotes just being together without having to talk; let one see friends from different sides; it teaches social dynamics in a relaxed, continuous way; provides safety, inspiration and social validation, and can be as entertaining as any sitcom****. So I want a social circle. And I do have it… by widening the criteria enough so my real life fits in:
- Family and a romantic partner can double as friends
- Friends need not be human
- Friends need not be physically present – ever
Home = Circle of Friends
Family and a romantic partner can double as friends, and Friends need not be human.
My husband is my best friend, and him and the 2 dogs make up the core of my everyday circle of friends. Then comes fringe members, like our friends and acquaintances from Church who all know each other and interact independently of us. Since we’re a family-like group with close relationships with one another and interact on a daily basis across the group, my home does in fact live up to the criteria for being a circle of friends.
Virtual Circles of Friends
Friends need not be physically present – ever.
Blogging is the centre of my virtual social life. Blogging means occasionally writing blog posts, and most of the time reading blogs and communicating online (e.g. in comment tracks) using this blog as my virtual ID.
Some of the bloggers who I follow & have been followed by over some time know vastly more about me than most people I know offline (including my family). They know aspects I haven’t tried to explain to most people I know face to face about how I sense the world, think, struggle and spend my time. I’ve even shared aspects of my history that I don’t think my family were aware of***** even when I lived right in their midst.
My point is that the networks and subcultures within the blogosphere serve as virtual circles of friends.
A Good Old Friend
Family can double as friends, and Friends need not be physically present.
Yesterday I talked with my cousin, who I have known all my life, for several hours via Skype… something that has never happened before. I gave her a tour of our house by walking through the rooms with my computer tablet with her talking head on… (Yay for living in the future!), from where she had a chat with my husband, too. It was great to talk with her, and we agreed to do it again soon. Next time with a glass of red wine in hand.
While she has her own circle of friends – a real one comprising old class mates et.c. – and I’m not part of that, our relation do have a bit of circle-characteristics in that we’re family and know a lot of the same people (family members). I have always been fond of her – from she was a big baby being placed on my lap (she is a few years younger than me). She is one of the most trustworthy and wisest persons I know and the one person in my maternal family who I dare confide in about sensitive things because she is a good listener and observer, and willing to understand instead of just wanting to apply black-and-white stereotypes to everything.
However, no matter how much I like her and enjoy her company, I’ve always as an adult felt awkward around her just like around anyone else who is roughly on my age, and just like around all my maternal family members. Because she is better… She met all her milestones. She has friends. She has a career. She knows how to navigate social landscapes. She masters the art of diplomacy. She understands how different persons feel and how it may influence their actions.
She is telepathic (OK maybe not).
Talking with her, I had some of the same impulses as always… Too eager, almost agitated and trying hard to steer my energy and to not be offputtingly insensitive about anything. I tried to be attentive and pleasant to talk with, to not get stuck too hard & fast on single trains of thoughts. To return smiles and openings and remember reciprocity at all times.
This time I put in the same effort as usual to try to do the conversation right, but I was more relaxed and willing to forgive myself for my mistakes. Conversations have always been a difficult balance art, but now I think that it isn’t my fault if I tend to stuff it up. I’m doing my best. I’m doing fine considering how hard it is. If I can’t manage to do it right then I can just tell her what the problem is and ask her for feedback and corrections. She wouldn’t mind… She likes me and there is a strong, old and deep bond underneath the patchy contact. It will prevail. And best of all, it is a great foundation for developing the friendship further. A happy
ending. beginning. continuation.
* Names are fake for the sake of anonymity
** She pointed that out repeatedly, and I denied it was the case… but it was, there you go I admit it.
*** Bipolar disorder
**** Here referring to the few sitcoms that are in fact entertaining
***** I could be under-estimating them