We overuse the word “friend” in our world—especially the technical world. We tend to call anyone we’ve ever met a friend. In this environment, friends come and go almost constantly, flowing through our lives like the leaves in a brisk fall wind. The depth to which Facebook and LinkedIn dive into our personal relationships—reminding us of birthdays, telling us who’s having a work anniversary, telling us when we should say the right thing at the right time to keep the “friendship” alive and current. But this somehow robs the concept of friendship out of, well, friendship. There’s no sacrifice, not even any effort—you have to question the value of “friendship” on these terms. It almost seems that social networking has made us less social, and less attuned to real friendship.
How do we live in this world?
I would first suggest reviving the concept of being intentional about friendship. Rather than just letting people fall into and out of our lives, we need, particularly as engineers, to decide to hold on to some friends, to intentionally make these people a fixture in our lives. We need to be careful not to make these choices based on what we need in our own lives, or because we agree on everything, or because these people make us feel good about ourselves. We need to choose friends simply because they are, and will in fact be, friends. There is a danger here, of course, in that we cannot choose to be friends with everyone. We have internalized this entire concept of frictionless friendship so deeply that we now expect our group of friends to be equal to the thousands of “friends” we have on our favorite social media site. In order to have real friends, we must decide who will not be a friend. There are only so many hours in a day; we can either consume them hitting the “like” button, or we can consume them actually communicating with real people.
I would second suggest that we must be more intentional about keeping in touch about real things in life. It’s far too easy to fall into some sort of vapid sentimental level of conversation about sports, music, or what we ate for dinner. To keep a friendship alive, we need to talk about things that matter — not deeply personal stuff necessarily, but about ideas, problems, and concepts. To keep a friendship alive you have to share the problems you’re facing, and look for real help in solving them.
Finally, I would suggest we keep this maxim in mind—friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate.
People might drift into and out of your life over time, calling themselves friends, acquaintances, or whatever. But an enemy, once made, never forgets, and never lets go. For some reason the human psyche seems to be able to latch onto a hatred or dislike and nurse it almost to the point of obsession—like the wronged professor in Big Hero Six. We can learn not to accumulate an enemies list, not to take it personally, not to nurse anger, but we can count on others doing so no matter what effort we make.
As engineers, we need to learn to rethink friendship—there’s more here than the “like” button would suggest. Social media might just be having a hugely negative effect on our ability to communicate and participate in the give and take of real friendship in real life.