MICHAELA FENGSTAD

Writing about life as it happens, trends in career development and new inspiration

Month: August 2014

50 Shades of Friendship

funny-friend-vs-best-friendI was bored the other day and to amuse myself I googled friendship and friends. I got approximately  312,000,000 results varying from friendship bracelets to speeches to organizations, definitions, messages, articles, quotes and so much more. It must be a very popular subject and one that does not need specialists to help you define or understand the notions, you might think.  I spent about one hour reading and browsing through the articles and comparing their insightful theories with my own believes, values and experiences. I learnt, yet again, that one’s culture and basic, elementary education shape their future values and beliefs. I can see you rolling your eyes, thinking: “Of course they do, no breakthrough theory here!”. Reality is yelling otherwise: too often we forget that people come from different backgrounds and their values are not always aligned with ours and what we hold the highest might not even make their list of must have’s.

My favourite quote on friendship is Steven J. Daniels: “A good friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body.” It defines in very simple words how much I value friendship. No, I have not killed anybody yet but hey, I am hopefully only half way through my life! I need to cover all my basis. Joke aside, I grew up divinizing the friendship Athos, Portos and Aramis shared in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers. Later on, after reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Darcy and Bingley were an odd couple first I could not understand, but then I fell in love with their relationship. Bingley is just a nice guy that likes everything and everybody, easy going and docile, always listening and following Darcy’s advice. On the other hand, Darcy is a rich landowner who doesn’t understand why he should be nice with people that are neither as rich, nor as educated and sophisticated as he is. And yet, Bingley is his most devoted friend, constantly putting up with his negative attitude and rude behaviour.

I read somewhere that real life friendships are not that easy to  find as most of them are either short lived and easily breakable or they take place only in your head. History, on the other hand, provides us with examples of real, quirky, long lasting friendships. Take the friendship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway for example. Their love for writing and literature brought them together but their friendship went far beyond this, although not the conventional or the overly loving type. When Hemingway sent Fitzgerald a draft of A Farewell to Arms, Fitzgerald sent it back with 10 pages of edits, to which Hemingway wrote back: “Kiss my ass.” When Fitzgerald confessed that Zelda, his wife, complained about the size of his penis, Hemingway took him to the washroom to analyze it and reassured his friend that everything was normally developed.

Al their lives, my parents had just a couple of friends and a lot of acquaintances. This was due partly to the fact that we were very close to our large family that provided enough drama to keep us busy, and enough support in time of need.  They were left with little to no time or emotional support to give to friends. Things were also simpler and categories very well defined: there were acquaintances, friends and close friends. The difference between friends and close friends was the amount of trust involved in the relationship. If you needed to move, for examples, you would call your friends to help you. If you needed to cry and expose your vulnerable naked soul you would call your close friend. It was easy, without confusions and everybody knew which category they belonged to. The status of close friend was not something that could be bargained, bought or negotiated. Being friends with somebody would not give you the status of close friend by default. This was something that was earned through trials and challenges along the years. But what a rewarding feeling knowing not wondering whether somebody has your back!

Moving from the old continent to North America, among so many other differences I’ve had to accustom myself with, the redefining of the notion of friendship proves to be one of the most challenging. I don’t like too many people to begin with. I don’t believe in the networking idea promoted and so highly talked about by the North Americans. I view it as an expression of the narcissistic side of a society infatuated with high school behaviour where the absolute dream is to be the most popular kid.

The main difference might come from the fact that I come from a “saver” society and live now in a “consumer” society. Back home we tend to keep few quality things/people for a longer time while on the new continent, the Dollar Store philosophy guides all our decisions: everything and everybody comes in cheap and is replaceable.  To me, all relationships here are governed by cordiality: the dialogue is informal and friendly and usually goes around the area of interest that brought the group together without going deeper or wider than just that. The term “friend” is used quite loosely to name  golf friends, riding friends, work friends, shopping friends, travel friends and so on… each and every compartment of our lives here comes with a set of “friends” but the connection is superficial and with no expectations of durability or depth. Once the golf season ends, the friendship goes into the hibernation until spring.

It makes sense if you put it in the context of life in North America: mobile and transient. People move at a drop of a hat for a better position, more money, a better opportunity, a better lifestyle therefor they are reluctant to invest more in human relationships. Friends tend to fulfil the need of pure socializing as for the times in need when sickness strikes or divorce, depression or just blue moods settle in, we turn to professional services who make good money for providing the “friend in need” support. I understand the logics behind it, but will it be enough for me?

Some time ago I read Hedrick Smith’s book The Russians. A journalist who spent time in Russia in the early 70’s, and wrote this beautiful book that provides so much insight into the culture and mindset of the Russians behind the Iron Curtain. Some or most of what he wrote applies to all of us that have grown up and formed our characters during those times. I will leave you with this paragraph about how we define friendship. I could not have written as accurate and beautiful as he did:

“Their [the Russians] social circles are usually narrower than those of Westerners, especially Americans, who put that much stock on popularity, but relationships between Russians are usually more intense, more demanding, more enduring, and often more rewarding.

I knew a couple sent off to Cuba for  two-year assignment, and another family put up their teenage son in an already crowded two-room apartment. When Bela Akhmadulina, the poet, married the third time, she and her husband were broke and their friends bought them an entire apartment full of furniture. Let a dissident intellectual get in trouble and real friends will loyally take the terrible political risk of going to his rescue…

They commit themselves to only a few, but cherish those. Within the trusted circle there is an intensity in relationships that Westerners find both exhilarating and exhausting. When they finally open up, Russians are looking for a soul brother, not  mere conversational partner. […] Russians want a total commitment from a friend.”

My best friend and the bravest man of all is my husband. He has been firmly by my side, never put off by my temper tantrums, by my deepest fears and depressions, by the storms that I continuously create and the never ending curve balls I throw his way in my struggle to keep my core values and my Romanian heart while carving my place into the Canadian world. The easiest way would be to drop the Romanian heart and dive deep into the Canadian culture but this would not be me and I am so grateful for him never asking from me to do just that.

 

Being Straightforward: Flaw or Quality?

tumblr_n0n1o3uNSm1rwn2euo1_400Growing up on one continent and living my mature life on a different continent has been challenging at times. The best way to describe it would be: being trained to run a marathon but competing in a triathlon now. As a marathon runner, your focus is on building your strength, your endurance because you want to be able to run for a longer period of time effortlessly. As a triathlon athlete, you need to swim, ride a bicycle and run fast. Your training has to be now divided among the three segments, with a focus on speed, not necessarily endurance. Sure, you can build on the skills and fitness level acquired as a marathon runner to become a very good triathlon athlete but the transition needs time and a shift in focus that is not happening over the night.

A few years ago, I attended a training session as I started volunteering for ISS of BC as a Settlement Mentor. In the group there were a few born Canadians, a couple of new Canadians like myself and about 4 new Immigrants that were working with ISS to improve their communication skills and to gain that mandatory Canadian experience without which their resumes were worthless. During those 4 hours I found myself quite a few times bursting out with laughter at the shocked faces of the born Canadians every time one of these new people would express an opinion or pass a judgement. It was quick, witty, refreshingly sincere and horrifyingly (for some of us) direct. I had a good time as I clearly understood where they were coming from, their tongue in the cheek remarks at times and their direct approach. There was no time wasted dancing around issues, there was no political correctness in anything they said only their truth and their perception of the reality. I found it comforting and refreshing to hear somebody’s sincere opinions after  years of trying to solve puzzles and understand what exactly was the truth hidden behind so many smiles and standard phraseology.

One of the biggest differences between North Americans and Europeans, especially Eastern and North Europeans is the degree of straightforwardness we allow in our relations. Eastern Europeans don’t believe in playing games or in beating around bushes which make things easier and less rigid. There is no script that we need to follow when trying to connect one with the other in any kind of relationship: friendship, love interest, business or just casual dating. In North America relationships are much more defined. They need to follow a script and  they rarely go deeper than two inches  from the surface. At least this is my perception of reality. Friendship or love is as deep as the depth of your knowledge and involvement in each other’s lives. When you follow a guided script with no comment areas or subjects, when you are allowed in only one compartment of one’s life, how well do you really know that somebody?

My tongue is blistered most of the times because instead of just blurting out what I really think, I am biting it.  To the every day Canadian I may sound rude and too blunt, but the Eastern European will appreciate and value my sincerity and honesty.  I am yet to learn to shut up if your new hair style sucks or what you have just done is kind of stupid and immature. I have learned not to talk about money or religion partly because I have never thought they really mattered but I am still judging people based on the number and quality of books they have been reading, their views on education and politics. Yes, politics! I don’t really care what party you vote for as long as you pick one! No voice or opinion on politics means that you are one of the many that likes the state of status- quo.

Most probably that if you are a Canadian reading my rant, you will value “strategy” and “political correctness” over the Eastern European bluntness or their  inconsiderate way of dealing with people. The Eastern Europeans view strategy and political correctness as insincerity and hypocrisy. In North America as well as in Eastern Europe being direct can and usually does create anger, frustration and hurt feelings which, in turn, prompt people to take action and change. The loss of frustration and anger or even hurt feelings that political correctness is promoting, creates a passiveness, an acceptance of the things as they are that to me equals with regress, an undesirable acceptance of the default as a personal choice. What do you think? Is straightforwardness a flaw or a quality?

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