Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Because the previous week's discussion had concerned attraction, I started out this hangout with the loaded question posed in When Harry Met Sally, whether men and women can be friends. Answer: of course they can, unless you are trapped in a gender-essentialist heteronormative culture which assumes that men and women are polar opposites (and also men will always be tempted by sex even when it's antisocial).

What are the great friendships of genre fiction? We thought of Frodo and Sam, but there are some class difference issues that make that relationship more like lord and valet. We also thought of Sherlock and Watson, but interestingly, when Watson is female as in Elementary, you do tend to get pressure to make the relationship more romantic. I proposed that the relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven is a really interesting friendship because it strays toward the romantic but remains platonically intimate and even draws back from a level of psychic intimacy.

Paul asked, "Why do we want to convert non-romantic relationships to sexual relationships?" The answer is probably cultural.

In Bujold's work, Lady Alice and Cordelia are allies and friends. Women are projected as lone wolves while men are part of communities.

Genre has a lot of backbiting and competition built into its fabric, including a lot of zero-sum assumptions that make friendships difficult to maintain. If you support someone, that doesn't have to detract from your own chances. If you have similar status to someone else, it doesn't necessarily have to lead to contention. The idea of the wingman is a weird permutation of friendship that drags it toward relevance to the romantic realm.

Can you have a friendship between members of two different cultures? Certainly you can - but it might not mean the same thing to both people.

I talked about how Rulii, a wolf alien from my Allied Systems universe, has difficulty with the concept of friendship because he understands it as interdependence without rank. His people think of rank as central to life and inextricable from it. What do you do if you can't tell relative rank? In his world, you struggle.

Kat pointed out that racialization harms friendships in racially biased cultures because it makes mutual trust harder to achieve.

There are a lot of uses of the word "friend" that imply different levels of engagement. There's the Facebook or other social media friend. There's the acquaintance. There's the intimate platonic friend. The apparent flatness created by this single word, and the lack of further vocabulary, makes it harder to talk about different kinds or levels of friendship.

Would you discuss bias with your friend? Would you help them move? Would you care for their family members? Would you spend time with them? Would you call them on bad behavior?

Morgan said she'd like to imagine a language which had more words for friendship than we have. The only issue with that is that you'd run into the author effort of teaching new vocabulary to a reader. Sometimes it's worth it for a story, and sometimes it isn't.

Children also have different ideas of who friends are and what the word means. One can be friends of one kind with a friend at school, and another with the child of a friend of one's parents. Adults, meanwhile, struggle with the platonic versus the erotic. This confusion is taught early, when boyfriend/girlfriend aspects are ascribed to platonic relationships between children.

Morgan mentioned a child who had been having a tough time with a friend and said, "Maybe we should just not be friends until after naptime." This is similar to not entering stiff negotiations until after eating.

Resarch on kids' play suggests that kids spend a lot of time approaching other kids and asking to play with them, and despite the ease you might expect, they fail about half the time.

What kind of environments provide the kind of social interaction that fosters friendship in your society? What kind of restrictions on interaction are placed on different social environments that might make it more difficult to make friends?

Kat mentioned that there are societal expectations saying you should make friends within your gender cohort, your geographic cohort, and your age cohort. She explained that marginalized people might not be able to make friends in this environment, and might have to wait to find affinity groups, possibly later in life. Some friendships are forged on the battlefield.

As an adult, have you closed off your world to new friendships? How would you?

Social events like fandom and conventions may promote friendship because of shared affinity/interests. Most people find nerdy circles in their late teens and seek out these contexts.

Kat mentioned how knitting groups might seem welcoming on the surface but sometimes every member has known the others for 20 years, and all conversation is about what they already have in common. So even choice of topic might be a way to exclude someone new from a friendship circle.

Society sets up certain types of interaction contexts, like school. Once you have left those contexts, it may be harder to find alternative ones.

Where do interactive opportunities occur in your world? What kind of environments encourage interactions that might lead to friendships?

Reaching out to others is not easy. It's a risk, always, but especially for marginalized people. It's also a risk for people who can't read social cues easily. If you are autistic and have difficulty interpreting words or gestures, it doesn't mean you don't want friendship - but friendship does become more difficult to achieve. You have to figure out the right words and the right faces to make. There are lots of important ingredients that go into being able to reach out to someone. What might those be in a fictional world?

I brought up the question of reciprocity in friendship. Do we take turns paying for lunch? That's one kind of question. But reciprocity is not always accomplished in the "same coin," as Kat said. Kat told us about a panel she participated in where someone argued that rich and poor people couldn't be friends because of reciprocity. However, it's perfectly possible for people to achieve reciprocity by giving from where they have a surplus. Fairness is not always the same as equality. You can even exchange emotional processing for physical work.

Freedom to set what kinds of things you are willing to exchange is important.

Kat talked about friendship as occurring in "silos," where making friends between the silo groups is really difficult or impossible. "If you can't set out cutesy sandwiches, you can't eat them." What does it take to create fairness if you can't use easy models of reciprocity?

There are two different models of friendship between groups. One is, "I don't see you as a member of this other group," which erases difference. The other is "I see you as exactly who you are and value that."

Do we need a better model for friendship?

As we get older, we live lives full of obligation, and we have less time to do the things that migth foster friendship.

Power relationships can be a huge problem for friendships as well as for romances.

I talked about a friendship I'm writing between a Varin nobleman, Pyaras, and a police officer, Veriga. There are rules that tell us what we can talk about in particular contexts, and if those hadn't been broken, and broken by people who were entitled to break them without consequences, the two would never have become friends.

Kat pointed out that there is a "magical sidekick problem" with marginalized people. A friendship between a privileged person and a less privileged person might be seen as unequal and the friend reduced to a sidekick. The privileged person in the relationship might see the other as a friend but might not perceive the things that the less powerful person is holding back, which prevents them from feeling like the friendship can be deeper. Marginalized people have to be careful and can't share some things because it might lead to reprisal or the end of a friendship. This is how you can have someone who says "My friend is a member of X group and I have never heard that."

Thank you to everyone who joined in the discussion. I thought it was really interesting and explored some difficult and fascinating territory.


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