By Galia Barhava-Monteith
We are social animals. This is how we survived the harsh savanna landscapes of our ancestors. We grouped together and allocated roles, hunted and gathered and looked after our young. On our own we would not have survived to pass our genes on. In every story, movie and play about people isolated from others, the common theme is how the lack of human contact is the most difficult aspect. Think of Tom Hanks in Castaway talking to his ‘friend’ Wilson, who was in fact a basketball. We miss people, and it is our relationships with others that we remember the most and that define us the most.
There is a wonderful Hebrew saying:
Show me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.
This saying is echoed in many other languages; in essence, we acknowledge that we can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. This article examines friendships and their influence on our lives through different lenses and gives some practical suggestions along the way.
Cross Cultural Friendships
Being a migrant to New Zealand, I remember vividly how hard it was to leave my Israeli girlfriends and how sorely I missed them on a daily basis. Moving to a new country with such different social expectations was far harder than I had anticipated, and it took me a long time to find true friendships.
My initial experiences led me to think about how so many of the norms of friendship can be culturally different and are so subtle that misunderstandings can happen easily.
For example, I now know that in New Zealand it is normal for friendships to take a long while to form, and even longer to become truly close. Not only are Kiwis naturally reserved, they also have a slower sense of time. As an Israeli visitor once told me, in New Zealand there is no news, “just current affairs”. What she meant was that in New Zealand we take our time, processing a story for an entire day and sometimes weeks. In Israel, the news stories are forever updating.
On Women and Friendships
You don’t need a PhD to figure out that women’s friendships are very different to men’s. Women’s friendships can have a devastating effect on our well-being because they are so emotionally meaningful to us. From an evolutionary psychology point of view, because women were left to care for the young while gathering and preparing meals, they learned how to build complex social networks – more so than men because of the nature of the tasks they did. Our great-great-great grandmothers had to have long memories to know who could be trusted to look after the young and who couldn’t. Something many of us have perfected since!
Traditional, Supportive and Challenging Friendships
Over the years I have observed that, broadly speaking, there are three prevailing types of female friendships. There’s the traditional female friendships portrayed in many popular literature and films – my personal favourite being Tina Fey’s Mean Girls.
That’s the archetypical fun-loving friendship that at first runs hot, sometimes bordering on obsessiveness, and frequently ends up with an episode of massive backstabbing. Many of us had these friendships in our teen years and to some, it’s the only type of female friendship that comes to mind when the topic gets raised. Personally, I think these friendships are not as common as we might think, and I believe there are two additional, and much more frequent and realistic types of friendships we women have.
These are the bread and butter of friendships. The friendships that provide us with emotional support, these are the treasured friends you don’t need to think twice about catching up with them or not, you just do it. It is always easy going and inevitably you feel refreshed and re-charged after spending time together.
These friendships are the ones we all need: quality matters here and not quantity. The research community is just catching up with the importance of these relationships for our physical and emotional health, especially in times of stress.
Be mindful to invest in these friends: the more you do, the more everyone benefits, especially you. These are the friends who will be there for you and nurture you. You won’t need to ask them, they’ll just know.
Challenging, Interesting and Extending Friendships
The third type of friendship is more prevalent for professional women because in our working lives we all come across smart, challenging women who have achieved great things. At times the friendships with these women are materially different to supportive friendships. These friends push us out of our comfort zone. I see these relationships as the ‘spice’ of friendships. These are those fabulously interesting women who you never can tell what they’ll come up with.
Some of us might like more spice in our friendship mix than others, and this need may be different over the years as we change and as the challenges we face change too. At some points in our lives we might feel open to be challenged and extended. At other times, we might just need support, there might be enough things challenging us anyway – like having your first baby! The key here, like most other things, is to be self aware about your needs and reflect about the kind of friend that you are or would like to be.
Being the Best Friend You Can Be
There are many books about being the best mum, the best dressed executive, the best lover and what not, but I have yet to see a book dedicated to being the best friend you can be. And I think someone should write it!
How often do we think about how to be a good friend? How often do you reflect on what makes you a good friend and what others do that makes you appreciate them as a friend?
One of the biggest messages that comes from the field of positive psychology is that, first and foremost, you have to practise what you preach and try to bring your signature strengths into your life – and into your friendships. See the chapter Why Positive Psychology is for Everyone for more on signature strengths and how you can find out yours.
There are so many ways you can apply your signature strengths to enhance your friendships. For example, if one of your strengths is curiosity, you could make a point to find out something you didn’t know about your friend next time you see them. If one of your strengths is the capacity to love and be loved, you could always think of new and different ways to exercise your strength, be it through offering to do a shop for a girlfriend whose child is sick or through organising a 40th surprise party. The thing about using your signature strengths is that everyone wins. You win because it is so rewarding using your signature strength and your friends win because through using them, you ARE a better friend. And the important bit is to have friends who love and value you for the strengths you have.
When you are mindful about your friendships, all of a sudden they become much more than a nice thing to have.
It took me many years but I am now conscious of how important my friendships are to my ability to do all I can do that I treat my friendships with the same level of respect as I do my paid work. Gone are the days where I viewed being with a friend as a luxury to be afforded only after my ‘real’ work was done. I now view it as one of the most important fuels that keep me going!
I hope I have got you thinking about your friendships, what they mean to you and how you can be the best friend that you can be. I especially hope you’ll go out to dinner with your best friends and make a toast to friendships!
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