Saturday, May 2, 2009

friends and acquaintances

a distinction I never grew up making; it's huge in this country (Germany). 

Last night my mother-in-law was talking to my kids about this. It came up because of, again, the du vs. Sie thing, calling people the formal you or the not-formal you, which my older son is already quite fussed about. He finds it infuriating and irritating and pointless. And so his grandmother was telling him about a woman she has had breakfast with once a week for twenty years, and they still call each other "Frau G..." and "Frau C..." and say Sie to each other. Max was really uncomprehending of such a situation. And he said "so this friend of yours . . . " and his grandmother said: actually, she's not my friend, she's an acquaintance. And she went on to say she has only one friend, and to tell us about her, which I was particularly glad to hear about because I had actually never even heard about or met this person. (I've been an item with my mother-in-law's oldest child since 1981.)

So on the one hand it's this weird and alienating distinction that my children and I are so not used to making. 

In addition, though, it made me think about how I see other people. I think the labels do matter. If she looked at the people I call friends, I'm sure she would have to label a lot of them as acquaintances. But if I look at the consequences of my calling these people friends, I think it is not just blindness on my part to the distinctions, but it is also that I feel like there are possibilities of friendship with people I have just met or don't know that well, but there is a feeling, a connection, an interest, a desire for connection . . . and calling a person a friend does put things into a new category.

It's not like we don't make any distinctions. There are new friends, close friends, old friends, best friends. 

I don't feel like my world is flattened because I'm quicker to call a person a friend. 

I hope it's not seeming that I'm condemning or failing to appreciate the fact that here there is this other distinction. I can see that it could be very interesting in its own right. I'm just trying to think about whether I could go so far as to say that either I should be maintaining such a distinction too and lose something by not doing it, or whether in fact I already have such categories and just use different labels, and I do think on reflection that neither of those is true.

I should say that in my German mother-in-law's case, the fact that she lived in Iran for twenty years complicates matters; she maintains an extra level of formality even way beyond what many other Germans do. (And some of my German friends mistakenly thought for years that she and I didn't get along because I was calling her Frau C... and Sie.)

But it's really not just her. In 1995, when we'd moved from the West Coast to the East one and my marriage was temporarily imploding (except I didn't know it was temporary at the time), I hadn't met hardly anyone and the closest people I knew were a German-French couple, and when I was talking to them about my situation and their friendship they said "Well, of course, we're not your friends, we're acquaintances." I reported this to the horrible therapist I saw once or twice and he was appalled, but in fact I wasn't because I thought, this is a European thing. This is so very different.

Anyway, that's my story for tonight. Good night, dear friends.


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