I have a lot of conversations with acquaintances in bars—it’s very nearly a hobby at this point. I know a great number of people, and have no shortage of time in which to mindlessly and mutually flap gums with them. Often in these interactions, we are struck once more with discovery: we like one another’s company! Why, we’re quite the pair! We’re both such a gas. How have we not spent real, invested time with one another before now? We are both so cool, as we make sure to say aloud and with alcohol-tinged earnestness, several times. We vow to call each other soon, to have dinner or a beer or a deep conversation about geopolitics, and we even make the bold move to exchange phone numbers, to make it a solid pact. We’ll facebook. We’ll text. Email. Carrier pigeon. Smoke signal. By rain or sleet or snow, our missives will be sent and received, and hanging out will be had.
I never contact them. And they never contact me.
It’s not a judgment on their quality as people, nor on mine (well, I hope). Rather in the cold light of the next morning, when I look through my phonebook and see all of the various people I already like a great deal that I am already neglecting to provide with my contractually obligated modicum of quality time, I feel shaken. If I devote a weeknight or, even more boldly, one of my precious Saturdays, to this new potential friend, I am almost certainly taking it away from another friend. I am robbing this person of the fun we could be having. Worse – I am robbing them while colluding with someone else. I am friend-cheating on them. I’m no cheater.
I do the honourable thing, and avoid all contact. Calling or emailing would just be leading them on.
There’s no such thing as having too many friends, until there kind of is. You can have a robust network of acquaintances: coworkers and distant cousins and shared hobbyists and gym buddies and people with whom you are on nodding terms when you walk in and out of the bathroom and whole great hosts of people that you see incidentally. These people don’t require scheduling, and they don’t begin to feel forlorn when you don’t call, and you don’t feel bad when you haven’t seen them in a while. They are obligationless blobs, a sort of semi-people: figures you can smile at and forget about, people for whom a benign smile is required, and you have a deep, deep reserve of benign smiles.
But the number of actual, close friends has a definite limit. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in a week, and so many weeks you can go before you’ve shattered a friendship by omission. If you are within reasonable contact distance with such people, you have to dole out some portion of time together to make the relationship worthy of calling “friendship.” If you fall below the threshold, they’re basically back to being acquaintances.
But since your free time is finite, suddenly you have to start making realistic choices. You want to maintain the bonds you’ve already forged, and that forging requires maintenance. Sure, I could hang out with a new person. But what about all the people I already know that I like, and that are all on constant timers of neglect, like desperate, hungry, emotional houseplants? I already feel bad enough about not getting to spend time on them, so why complicate the issue further by tacking on another new person to feel bad about?
Some of these perpetual almost-friends could very well be just the right friend for me. Surely if we could just find the time for one another, we would realize the depths of our complementariness, our bestie destiny. We could have Game of Thrones viewing parties, and play Catan, and go to concerts and check out restaurants. We would like the same people and hate the other ones without having to really explain it, though we would, and at length. We would frolic through the daisies or whatever it is people do with their best friends, and knit one another bonnets. Maybe we would get one of those necklaces that come in two pieces so that we are always reminded that the ST END to our BE FRI is out there, with matching necklace, waiting to hang out.
But we are both already kind of busy, and don’t really have any openings on the dance cards. No matter how compatible, no matter how destined our meeting, no matter how bosom our buddyness, they came onto the scene kind of late, and it means we are just bum out of luck. Maybe if you leave your résumé, a list of interests, and a rough estimate of how many beers you can smash before throwing up, I’ll give you a call when there’s an opening.
But until such a time, we will just be bound by custom to mention to one another how great we both are. The implications are clear: you have any free space yet in your phone book? Have any of your long-timers gotten married, or joined a cult, or taken up a particularly aggressive and preachy strain of veganism? We must run adjacent to one another, occupying similar worlds and leading similar lives, but remaining tangential as a matter of time management. They are like potential vampire slayers, wandering around unactivated; they are inhabiting a sort of Mievillian shadow-city overlaid with my own, one that I consciously, magically, effortlessly ignore*.
They are would-be friends. And I’m sure they’re very, very nice.