1. A person you know well and regard with affection and trust
  2. An associate who provides assistance
  3. A person with whom you are acquainted

I offer all of you my hand in friendship

The dictionary definitions are all a little bit narrow for my liking. They seem to suggest that only people you know well should be called friends; or they suggest someone who helps you when you are in some difficulty is a friend. I also noticed that the antonym of friend is foe (enemy). So is the dictionary suggesting that someone I am not acquainted with, do not know well and regard with affection and trust, or someone who does not provide me with assistance, is my enemy!

Surely this can’t be right. Just because we don’t know someone yet doesn’t make them our enemy, it just makes them a friend we have yet to meet. There, that sounds better than enemy, doesn’t it? So with that cleared up let us begin our discussion.

The friendship pyramid

Country leaders often turn to their friends during times of crisis, don’t they? They’ve got themselves into a bit of bother so they call on some “friend” who happens to share the same religion or economic viewpoint, skin colour or language, and asks for some help (usually military or financial, and as we know, friends help each other out. When they ask for help, they receive it.

“That’s what friends are for.”

Moving down the chain a little, some people have “friends in high places,” a euphemism for saying a person in power who is able to be manipulated, and when they need a favour, they call up their friend and get whatever it is “fixed,” (e.g. a parking ticket torn up, or plans for a new casino in a residential area passed). Isn’t it nice to have friends?

Lower down the pecking order, there are people we know from the community, perhaps someone from the pub who can take a look at your leaky pipes, for “just a couple of drinks!” And finally we have the personal friends. But then these too go in order.

There are “friends you know to say hello to in the street;” “friends you know from work and may go out with socially a couple of times;” then the regular people you meet up with every week, followed by the second best friend and finally the first best friend – the person who you confide your darkest secrets to, and usually the ones that run off with your other half and don’t pay back money they borrowed (sorry, that’s a little harsh)! I haven’t included parents in this list because you don’t choose them, you’re just kind of stuck with them, and anyway you love them, you’re not just friends with them, right?

So as we reach the bottom of our pyramid, we can see that there are many types of friendships going on. From the “I have some problem I need fixed friend,” to the “personal confidant friend” you need nothing from, but are just happy to share their company.

Friends are nice

It’s nice to have friends isn’t it? People you can phone up, share your daily worries with, pop round to their houses and they to yours, go on holiday together, and chat and chat and chat. Everyone needs friends. But why? Well, for starters, we would be pretty lonely on our own, and second, it’s nice to have someone else you can chat to apart from your other half (they don’t understand you), and anyway, Man is a social animal, he needs lots of different stimulation and conversation, and friends are the ideal people to do stuff with. They like the same things you do, they like going to the same places and they like talking about the same things. All in all, it’s a perfect set up.

Without people to stimulate us and share our daily troubles we’d be a pretty sorry lot, moping around all day with no one to talk to. Work colleagues won’t crack it, we need someone we can trust, someone who knows what it’s like to be you, and can empathise with how you are feeling and vice versa. Those of us who don’t have this kind of friend tend to become insular and start to hide their feelings, which isn’t good for anyone, no sir! So we all need to get ourselves some close friends and the world will be perfect. Ok? The end.

But hang on, how do we find these friends? The world is becoming a hard place to meet people. Everyone is so busy; they all seem to have enough friends already thank you very much and don’t need any more, as I have found out over the last few years. And the older you get the harder it gets. People are married, they have their own lives now; they have families and they want to hang around with other families (you know the mothers who only hang around with other mothers).

So we join sports clubs, and other activity clubs, hoping to meet that special friend we have never had. But lots of people already have a best friend from their schooldays, so how are you going to find a best friend? Maybe you could set up a website for people who don’t have best friends (hey, not a bad idea). Ultimately, it is down to luck and good chemistry whether or not you hit it off with someone and become everlasting friends.

But even when you do have those friends, you can still blow it, by sleeping with their partner, saying something that offends them, or borrowing money. I’m not sure which is worst, but I’m sure you’ll all have your own idea. So, you should now have someone to confide in; someone to trust; and someone to be there for you. And that is a hard thing to find. I assure you.

The stranger

Maybe you hadn’t noticed, but in the cities and towns these days, everyone is a stranger. Everyone is a potential enemy; you don’t know who to trust, you don’t know who you can confide in, and so you are always on your guard.

You move quickly from place to place to meet your “real” friends or colleagues, and purposefully avert your eyes in case anyone talks to you. “Excuse me, can I just ask you a question?” pleads the underpaid, underloved charity campaigner desperately trying to get you to sign up to help the whales, the elderly, or the dying etc. and you move even quicker, side stepping them, and nearly knocking an old lady over in the process.

This as you may have guessed, is me I’m describing.

I have always hated talking to people I don’t know, although my mum is a practised genius at managing to talk to at least half a dozen people she doesn’t know in the street or in the shops.
“Mum!” I used to shout, all embarrassed. “Why do you keep talking to people you don’t know, it’s really, really embarrassing!”
“Why?” always asked my mum, “and anyway, they talk to me, not the other way round.”
“But you don’t even know them” I used to plead, as I was dragging her away by force. “You’re sooo embarrassing.”

But recently, I noticed that neither she nor the person she was speaking to seemed embarrassed, in fact they seemed to be enjoying the chat. My embarrassment, it seems, is utterly misplaced. I questioned who I was feeling uncomfortable for. Was it for me, my mum or the person who was accosted by her in the shop? I realised I was predicting what the other person must be thinking, “Oh no, a mad woman has stopped to talk to me in the street! I must run away quickly!”

And that’s it isn’t it? We have lost the art of conversation. We think anyone who talks to us who is not our friend must either be mad. “Hello, I’m the king of egypt,” said one man who approached me recently, or after something:
“Scuse me mate, Scuse me… Err you ‘aven’t got a quid I could borrow ‘ave ya?”
To which I always wanted to reply:
“Sure, when were you planning on giving it back to me?”

Recently I saw a strangely dressed man walk up to a young couple and put out his hand. “Do you live here?” he said, and I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but as I turned back to look, I could feel the young man getting embarrassed by the poor man who was still busily shaking his hand. And I could feel myself thinking “I’m glad he didn’t stop me and shake my hand, that would have been awful.” But the only awful thing about it is that we (I) go out of our way to avoid people who are not on our list.

We have all become so insular that we cannot speak to anyone. How would we start a conversation?

Would they think we were mad, or perhaps trying to chat them up? Perhaps they might think we plan to steal their wallet, or follow them home and rape and murder them. Oh well, it’s best not to think about it, so we go back to standing on our own.

Many years ago, I used to catch a commuter bus into london, and one thing I noticed was that the same people were standing at the bus stop every day, and never once, did anyone utter a word to anyone else; people who would spend two to three hours of their lives every day with these same people. I just couldn’t understand it.

These weren’t strangers, these were people they recognised, people who sat next to them on the bus; but each and every day they would walk in silence to the bus, sit down, read their papers, or fall asleep without so much as a hello to the other passengers. That might start a conversation, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Six billion potential friends and counting

So, has Man always been such a coward when it comes to chatting with people he doesn’t know? Has he always had a deep seated fear of the unknown enemy; always on his guard in case of attack? Well, up until the last few hundred years, society was ordered very differently. There were no mega-cities and most people lived in smaller communities where most people knew each other. Sure they would gossip about each other, but they would also just stand and talk airing any problems they had, sharing in the village news.

But it’s not like that now, is it? Nine million people in a city and you know, what, maybe one or two well, and have maybe thirty or so acquaintances and not so close friends. That’s a heck of a lot of people we don’t know isn’t it? No wonder we are scared of strangers!

You see, the modern economic society is all about the individual, isn’t it? My job. My money. My car. My house. My friends. My family. And we are taught that that is the way it should be. “You keep your head down in the city and nothing bad will happen to you,” they say.

So every day, you jostle for a seat on the train, metro, or bus, with people you don’t know, and you avert your eyes from theirs in case (a) they think you’re looking at them “funny” and stab you, or (b) think you’re a pervert for eyeing up the women.
And never look at children, because the parents might think you are a paedophile and report you to the police, and if you smile at a child, that is proof positive that you are a paedophile, and the father might get aggressive, and you don’t want that, so… It may be better just to drive in, just in case any of the above happens!

How do we engage again?

So, we can see from our dialogue that we are on pretty shaky ground if we ever thought about starting a conversation with anyone we don’t know in a city or town. “Normal people don’t talk to strangers, remember! Leave the talking to strangers bit to the mentally deranged and the homeless alcoholic beggars,” your friend wisely councils. And maybe we should, after all, what would we talk about? The weather?

Maybe it’s going to take a bit of intervention to get this whole thing going again, because I think, that left to your own devices, you will probably carry on with your “eyes averted, side stepping charity collectors walk,” I regularly practised. But this is going to take careful management; we don’t want to freak everyone out when we start talking to them. So what I propose is a conversation corner! What a scary thought.

“The conversation corner”

Now look, I’m not talking about anything fancy here, I’m talking about setting up several permanent tables and chairs with some kind of weather protection on the top. A sign that says “Conversation corner, get your conversation here,” or something catchier than that perhaps! If you sat down and someone sat next to you, you would have to talk. A scary thought I grant you.

But what if we set up these conversation corners right in the centre of the city, and had as many of them as we have fast food outlets, and coffee shops? What do you think? Do you like the idea now we have kind of formalised the talking to strangers bit? It makes it a bit less confronting than just walking up to someone who is obviously in a hurry and obviously doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Now if you want to talk to him or he wants to talk to you, you could meet up under the bright red “conversation corner” sign. So who wants to start it? You or me? Ok, I’ll see what I can do…

Stop being so insular

We may have enough friends to confide in, we may not need any more, and our life may be complete; but for the sake of humanity, we have to stop enclosing ourselves in our little “friend” bubbles, whether that friend be at the national, or personal level.

We have to start breaking down the barriers, not putting up new ones that say “these are my friends, these are the people I will talk to because they are like me.” We need to have conversations with everybody.
Imagine a muslim and a christian sitting down at one of our new conversation corners, just having a chat.

Break down the barriers and see that we are all people; that we can be friends with everyone. And when I say friends, I am not suggesting we regularly attempt to socialise with millions of people. We can have our close confidants, and our extended group of acquaintances, but there are millions of people in our cities whom we could call our friends, even if we only meet them once at conversation corner. They could be a drug dealer, a city dealer, or a car dealer, it doesn’t matter; what matters is that there is one less stranger in our city; and that, my friends, can only be a good thing.



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