Crossing Cultures: Friendly and ‘Friending’

By Byron Black on 12:19 pm May 15, 2013
Indonesian children log on a Facebook page at an Internet shop in Kuta, bali on Feb. 2, 2012. (AFP Photo/Sonny Tumbelaka).

Indonesian children log on a Facebook page at an Internet shop in Kuta, bali on Feb. 2, 2012. (AFP Photo/Sonny Tumbelaka).

You are extremely lucky if you have never lost a friend. The first misunderstanding, the conflict which cannot be resolved – you feel helpless and you feel the loss. Your friend may act nonchalant, or may even be angry with you about something (even though you don’t know what it is).

Then there are external forces which can nurture or even rip apart friendships. Money is a common one – you can help a friend, give him or her a gift or loan of money, but as soon as cash changes hands something else comes between you.

Even if you have no attachment to a loan that is not, cannot be repaid, your parents or others may scold you for the loss. This is why rich boys and girls are often to be pitied, as they cannot trust anyone else but another rich kid to be their friend (even though they don’t necessarily like them).

You and your friend share good times and fun experiences because you are equals: that way, neither of you feels the temptation to take advantage of the other. Rich girl, poor boy – that’s the stuff of films and novels.

Indonesia is unique in that religion can play a major role in stressing or even severing friendships. In Western countries no one really cares what your religion is: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

The hallmarks of what is known as a ‘fair-weather friend’: as long as you have something that someone wants, or you are attractive, popular or powerful, others are drawn to become your friends. But when you are in trouble or you have a serious problem with the police or other authorities, your erstwhile friends simply vanish. “It’s not my problem,” they murmur. “You’re on your own”.

A true friend will stand by you in times of trouble, will support and defend you when others attack you. And such friends are truly priceless. But like most priceless things they are rare, particularly in today’s world of casual relationships.

Someone I know only distantly wants to ‘friend’ me on Facebook or another of those time-waster social sites. Did you know that before the advent of the Internet, the word ‘friend’ was never used as a verb? We can say ‘befriend’ but that is a little different: our trusty dictionary says ‘to become or act as a friend to… He befriended the new student.’

As you can see from this example, ‘befriending’ implies assistance or support, perhaps out of a compassionate or charitable feeling. A new student might well feel lonely, uneasy or frightened, as he or she has no one to bond to.

I frankly find ‘Friending’ problematical, in a way. In one case I got a request from a guy who was cold and sneering when we knew each other in Jakarta: he was a fat, rich and conservative American alcoholic. So why in the world would he want to become a friend?

Ah, there’s the difference. He really doesn’t. What he apparently wants is to add me to his collection: it feels odd when I look at his FB page and see he already has 1,451 ‘friends’. Impossible. No one can possibly have that many real friends.

Perhaps ‘friending’ actually means ‘gaining approval or attention’ from someone else – at the safe distance afforded by the Internet (nobody can borrow money on line, and if they ask you, then you can simply put them on ‘ignore’).

Shockingly, there have actually been physical attacks and even murders by American Facebook fanatics who were ‘unfriended’ by a Facebook contact – they took this as such a personal insult that they resorted to that good old American solution of bang-bang. Needless to say they were adults, somewhere in their late 30s.

Younger people today seem much more casual about shedding friends, or being dumped by someone else, or casually ‘friending’ someone new. Maybe the influence of fake-friendship sites like Facebook has permanently altered the sense of true friendship. That would be a real tragedy, but one impossible to explain to someone who has never had, or wished for, a lifelong, fast friend.

Byron Allen Black is a freelance copywriter and editor. He taught Intercultural Communication from 2003-2009 at a communications school in Jakarta. He can be reached at bblacky@gmail.com