Friend or Follow?

Some friends turn out to be ''empty suits''

Some friends turn out to be ”empty suits”

Once again, I set out with the best of intentions. Once again, I fell flat on my face. Allow me to explain…

I am currently in a process of re-organizing and de-cluttering my life. For starters, I’m trying to sell everything I own, piece-by-piece. I am also reassessing my friendships, most of which exist via long-distance, and figuring out how to re-invest in the people who care about me. My only real links to friends these days are through my Gmail address book and Facebook. However, due in part to a technical error a few years ago and in part to the overly ambitious “friending” of everyone I came into contact over the past few years my Facebook friend list was cluttered with about 1700 so-called “Friends” – many of whom I didn’t even know, and many of whom probably don’t give a shit about me.

Let me back track a bit and explain something…

Part 1: My Unbalanced Relationships

You know how some people describe dysfunctional relationships as one person being “more in love” with the other than is returned? Well, I have a real problem with that happening in my friendships. I foolishly think that I am friends with someone, or that we at least care about each other more than we actually do – and they don’t really even care one bit.

I had a rude awakening to this problem back in the Christmas of 2007. It was my first year out of the Air Force and my first year back in school at UIC. During the first fall semester I became very involved in a Christian fellowship called Asian American InterVarsity (AAIV).

AAIV circa 2001

AAIV circa 2001

Now, my history with AAIV stretched all the way back to 2000 when I first enrolled at UIC. A (Caucasian) girl I met over the summer invited me to her Christian fellowship called AAIV. Because my father was a pastor of a predominantly Asian American church, almost everyone I knew in Chicago at the time was Asian, and I was feeling a bit over-saturated by the Asian American subculture. So, because this girl was white and because I didn’t know what the AA stood for, I decided to attend the fellowship partially just to try break out of that subculture. When I showed up and realized that her and I were the only Caucasians there, I realized I had miserably failed.

The next week, I visited a Christian fellowship called Servants. There was no AA in the fellowship name, so I thought I was safe. The ethnic makeup of students in Servants turned out to be almost entirely Filipino and Korean. So, I had a good laugh at myself and decided to accept my fate and stick with AAIV. After all, everyone there was very warm and welcoming to me, how could I say no?

Grace & Susie - My small group leaders

Grace & Susie – My small group leaders

Over the next two years, when I was actually attending UIC, I attended AAIV meetings and became involved with a small group as well. I ended up joining a church upon one friend’s invitation (Bethel Presbyterian). Sure, it was a Korean church, but I was okay with that. Eventually, however, I dropped out of school and then I stopped attending church. Life was becoming increasingly disappointing and I made things harder on myself by losing touch with all the good friends I had made in AAIV.

That was a common unbalance in my relationships. I let other people invest in me and then I would disappear and not keep up my end of the relationship. Over the next several years, I was devastated that I had let so many of these positive relationships and good people out of my life. It was something I struggled to come to terms with while I was in the Air Force – a struggle that was made even more difficult by the fact that military life has a way of moving people around so much that you have very little time to make meaningful friendships, and it was even more difficult to keep in touch the people you did become close to.

So, back to 2007. I was out of the Air Force and I was determined to make a fresh start with making friends. At first, I thought things were going pretty well. I was super involved in AAIV and socializing almost exclusively with other students in the fellowship. At the end of the semester, I decided to thow a small private end-of-semester dinner and invite about twenty or so people whom I thought were good friends.

I planned this dinner in detail which was no small task considering I was hosting it at my parents house and accommodating the amount of people I was inviting was going to be difficult. But, I figured out how to arrange the house to set up two large tables and made plans to borrow an extra table from my father’s church.

Then, I designed custom invitation cards and taught myself calligraphy so I could hand-write personal invitations to everyone I wanted to come. I distributed the invitations to my “friends” about three weeks before the semester ended – personally inviting them of course, and telling them how much it would mean to me if they could come. And, I followed up with a private Facebook event and asked people to RSVP via Facebook. Only about six people RSVP’d.

So, I made a point of reminding my “friends” about the dinner party and making sure they could come. Everyone gave me the same basic answer, “I probably can make it, but I’m not 100% sure what my schedule is that week, so I can’t say for sure.”

Since I planned for almost 24 people to attend and started to suspect that I was going to be slightly shy of that number, I decided to invite some more people at the last minuted whom I barely knew and considered only acquaintances.

Then, came the day of the dinner party. I called everyone who gave me a “yes” RSVP verbally or on Facebook to make sure they knew how to get to my parent’s house. Not one single person I called was planning on coming. Excuses ranged from “I have a last minute family dinner that came up” to “I live 45 minutes away and don’t feel like making the drive” to “I’m going to the mall with a friend.” Funny thing: that friend the person was going to the mall with was also someone I had invited to my dinner party.

Thanks for being my friend, Josh

Thanks for being my friend, Josh

In the end, only five people showed up to my dinner party and only one person was from AAIV and on the original guest list (Thanks, Josh! I love you, man!). The others were two guys I had recently met at a secular (somewhat atheist) campus club called RAFT (Rationalists And Free Thinkers), one of their girlfriends, and my friend Cori.

I learned a very important lesson that day. All those people from AAIV whom I thought were my friends weren’t really my friends. Just to be sure, when the Spring semester started up again I decided to stop attending AAIV meetings and see if anyone would notice. Only two people noticed: Josh, who was in my small group and Grace whom I knew from the larger fellowship. No one else from my small group bothered to contact me or even ask about me. I asked Josh if any other people had stopped attending our small group and he reported that it was the same people from the previous semester plus a few others.

Thanks for being my friend, Grace

Thanks for being my friend, Grace

It might seem silly to you if you are reading this, but that really destroyed me. I reflected on the friendships that I thought I had with these people and I recalled all of these people being super outgoing with me, inviting me to functions all the time, and acting interested in my life. However I quickly realized that the only functions I was ever invited to were AAIV functions. It would seem that I wasn’t a “friend” to any of these people: I was a duty: Someone to remind of fellowship functions and to pretend to care about in a pseudo-Christian empathy-hype after a prayer meeting or Bible study.

Ultimately, I learned a very important thing about myself and that is that I do not judge other people’s intentions very well at all and I all too often assume that there are something there that isn’t. I still am not very good at this and I still suffer frequent disappointments when friendships don’t pan out the way I expected them to.

The other lessons I learned is the importance of me keeping up my end of things when I do encounter people who truly care and are willing to embark upon a meaningful friendship. Looking back over my life I am painfully aware of friendships I let get away because I didn’t put in the effort or because I was, believe it or not, too timid to to pursue spending more time with people I recognized as kind, interesting, and potentially loyal friends.

Part 2: Re-Discovering Missed Connections

CHCS - 8th Grade

How many good friendships did I miss out on when I was younger?

A few years after I graduated from high school I made a very interesting discovery: Some people I never dreamed of being friends with or having anything in common with actually would have made excellent friends if we had only run in the same circles or I had tried to get to know them better.

This discovery came by way of a girl named Nicole. When I attended College Heights Christian School I bounced around a few social circles, but I never really landed in any particular group long enough to make any lasting friendships or even network to other groups.

Nicole was the kind of girl that guys like me didn’t even bother talking to. For one thing, she was gorgeous. She hung out with other “beautiful people.” I didn’t see myself fitting into that group. For another thing, when you are a teenager and fancy yourself a nerdy intellectual, you tend to lump all the “beautiful people” into a stereotype of probably being shallow and uninteresting. The stereotype couldn’t have been more wrong, but what did I know?

I don’t mention this stereotype because it is a particular reason why I never spoke to Nicole. I never would have spoken to her anyway because we couldn’t have run in more distant circles. I mention the stereotype simply because I know there are people in the past whom I have neglected trying to become friends with because of poorly preconceived notions.

A few years after high school, I discovered the lovely website Classmates.com. Only a few people from my school had registered at the time, so I decided to just email all the ones whose names I recognized and ask them what they were up to in life. Nicole was one of those people, and to my surprise she no only responded to my email, she responded at length. Even more to my surprise, I discovered that Nicole was a very intelligent, interesting, and artistic person whom I had many things in common with.

Nicole and I exchanged a few more emails over the next few months, but she lived in Dallas and I lived in Chicago, so starting a long-distance friendship was pretty challenging considering there was never any history or context between us to be friends in the first place. Eventually, we stopped writing each other and lost touch again.

But, through that experience I learned another very important lesson: I have taken for granted many acquaintances from my past who actually would have made excellent friends and are, to this day, worth going out of my way to reconnect with and try to rekindle a friendship with.

Part 3: The Facebook Friendship Challenge

This Could Be You

Want to be friends with a dweeb like me?

Putting these three lessons together and gazing over my Facebook friend list – sadly, my only point of contact to most of the people I know, I decided to experiment with something.

First, I went through my friend list and removed people whose names I didn’t recognize or didn’t particularly care for. This eliminated about 1,000 people. Most of those people were “accidental friends” whom I added when I gave Facebook access to my Gmail account, not realizing that my Gmail address book contained nearly two thousand email addresses of UIC students whom I had personally emailed and thanked for signing a petition I had circulated one semester.

Next, I eliminated people whom I just plain didn’t know well enough to have any justification to contact for any reason. Eventually, I winnowed the list down to people whom I either considered friends, or whom I felt like I knew well enough that it would be possible to and worth putting the effort to become friends with in the future.

However, I didn’t want to fall into the old trap of foolishly assuming that I was friends with anyone more than I really was. Some people mentally move on if you haven’t been in touch with them after a long while, and I have discovered react with great annoyance to you if you try to get in touch with them and rekindle a friendship after not having reached out to them for a few years. One thing I planned on doing was keeping track of all my friends birthdays and sending them a personal birthday card in the mail over the coming year. It can be pretty awkward asking someone for their address to send them a card when that person considers you barely an acquaintance or, worse yet, actually resents you for some unspoken reason.

So, I started a Facebook event called “stay friends with Zachariah on Facebook” and invited everyone I was still friends with to the event. My thinking was that all the people who would see my name and say, “Zachariah who?” or those who would think, “You had your chance years ago man, but it has just been too long,” would see this event and decline or ignore it.

''buried''

”buried”

I have discovered an interesting thing about people on Facebook. Few people really care much about who is on their friend list. Plenty of people have strangers and even people they dislike on their friend list for one reason or another. Usually it is either because they are too lazy to remove them, or because they find that person mildly interesting to keep tabs on but don’t really want to have any kind of real friendship with.

Well, Facebook recently introduced a very handy feature called “Follow” just for people who want to simply keep tabs on someone but not have an actual relationship with. I made my Facebook profile “Followable” and I figured that there were probably some people out there who didn’t want to invest in a friendship with me, but still would want to “keep tabs” on me and just follow me.

I quickly realized that one error in judgement I had made was that people weren’t actually reading the description on the event invite I sent out. Many people were declining the event off-hand because they decline all event invites, or they saw the time and date and thought, “Nope – I won’t be in Chicago during that time,” and didn’t look further.

Another problem was that some people just never pay close attention to Facebook. They don’t really investigate their news feed or invitations and were likely to wind up completely oblivious to my invitation.

I decided to mitigate this by sending out individual messages to the hundreds of people who did not respond to my invitation or had declined it just to make sure they knew about the event, and what I was doing. In general, this was somewhat of a success, but even those messages seem to have gone unnoticed or ignored by many people.

This created another problem for me: I stated that if someone didn’t want to keep up a friendship with me but were too polite to decline my invitation, say “no” or proactively unfriend me, then I would just unfriend those people myself after one month of no response. Believe me, those people DO exist: People who are too passive or polite to “unfriend” someone but are put out every time they hear from you directly or by seeing something from you pop up in their news feed. Sure, these people might be a little behind the curve on all the features that Facebook has to offer to help you politely ignore someone, but that’s just how they are I wanted to do my best to be sensitive to them and proactively help them ignore me.

In short, I was over thinking this entire thing way too much and trying way too hard.

What I failed to think of was how to tell the difference between passive/polite people who wanted me to unfriend them and disengaged people who just didn’t pay close attention to Facebook.

I think I accidentally offended a few people along the way as well. One person responded to my message with a very angry email and accused me of asking people to inflate my ego by reaffirming friendships. While this wasn’t the case, I completely see this person’s point.

Part 4: Picking Up The Pieces of Failure

The entire exercise turned out to be a bust. I probably offended more people in the long run. And the entire purpose of the exercise was to avoid offending people. I really am an idiot, sometimes, aren’t I?

To the hundreds of people who decided to actually “inflate my ego” and reaffirmed me as a friend on Facebook, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It doesn’t really make my ego any bigger than it already is, but just like it is nice to hear “I love you” from time to time from family and loved ones, it is very comforting to hear, “We’re still friends,” from friends both close and distant.

To the people who unfriended me or declined my invitation, I am deeply sorry if I somehow offended you by this invite. I know many people who unfriended/declined legitimately didn’t want to keep in touch and weren’t offended at all – but I also suspect that many more people misunderstood my intentions for inviting you to the event I did.

And to everyone out there: Not everyone uses Facebook the same way you do. You may use it as a simple time-wasting fad, but other people use it as an important Rollodex and essential communication tool. You may use friending as a way of keeping tabs on people you are mildly interested in, but other people use friending as a way of declaring who is really important in their life and who they want to keep in touch with. With that in mind, please be patient with those who take Facebook “too seriously” for your tastes. We all have our reasons.

And please, out of kindness for idiots like me who have trouble distinguishing who their real friends are and use Facebook as a way to keep track of and communicate with people, please, learn to use the Follow button instead of the Friend button.