BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

... if I sang out of tune

The publishing biz can be pretty brutal. I got this book at the dollar store … which is, of course, not in and of itself unusual … but it's quite a decent read, and is out-of-print (in the hardcover, at least) a mere 3 years after its release. Sure, I'm happy that this means that I got it for a buck, but this is one of those that I would have thought might well have a better run (it is still available in a paperback edition, however).

Anyway, I didn't expect that I was going to much like Carlin Flora's Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, but the way the info here is presented won me over. I'm somewhat surprised that I didn't end up with a whole lot of little bookmark slips in this (and the ones that are here are at the beginning and end of the book), so I'm going to be probably doing “broad strokes” over most of this.

As I noted in the above, I found the structure of the book one of the most appealing things here … the author (a former Features Editor for Psychology Today) starts out with a section trying to define friendship, then moves into “Finding and Making Friends”, and then to a series of chapters looking at friendship dynamics at various ages, from kindergarten on up, before switching to a consideration of “bad company”, and the evolving domain of digital friendship. What could have been an overly touchy-feely presentation flows logically through these chapters, and builds on each stage.

Now, looking through this, one of the challenges I have is that there's lots of rapid-fire examples in most of the chapters, which make it a bit difficult to grab some “summary” sense … however, an on-going theme here is, not surprisingly, how friendship differs from family relationships, which expresses itself on many levels, from the legal (a patient may have only a friend for support, but hospital rules might only allow relatives to visit in certain situations), to organizational (taking time off to grieve the loss of a friend is likely to be more difficult to arrange that that of a relative), to dynamic (especially among siblings).

The author includes some autobiographical information here as well, such as how she encountered her BFF – a Peruvian gal, who showed up at her dorm room looking for her roommate, and they totally clicked. This sets up a look at theories of friend connection, starting with the “proximity theory” where those you come into contact with frequently have a better chance of becoming friends. I found this spin on that of interest:
But also familiarity breeds positivity. Called the “mere-exposure effect,” it's a phenomenon that is widely documented: Just seeing someone over and over can make you like him or her more. It's probably because familiarity feels good to brains that would rather process stimuli using worn-in neural pathways than forging new ones.”
She injects an interesting factoid from some research here, that “You'll give off a better first impression … if your name is easy to pronounce.” – which is likely due to similar “brain preferences”. She rattles through a number of other settings which lead to friend formation … shared activities, major life events (the new mom finding other new moms to hang with), etc., before turning to Dale Carnegie and his (still applicable) tactics, which are then contrasted with people who have diseases which make things, such as reading facial expressions, difficult.

Unsurprisingly, Flora checks in with the well-known work of Robin Dunbar, and extracts a very good brief over-view of his work:
The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., discovered that the size of a primate's brain is correlated with the size of the social group within which its species typically lives. The magic number for humans – extrapolated from our average brain size – is 150.
      More specifically, Dunbar conceives of the number 150 as embedded with a number of layers. “In effect we have five intimate friends. Fifteen close friends, 50 good friends, 150 friends,” Dunbar says. “The 15 layer has long been know in social psychology as the 'sympathy group' (those whose death tomorrow would seriously upset you). Beyond 150, we have acquaintances, and here they are more often asymmetric (I know who you are, but you don't necessarily know who I am). The 1,500 layer seems to equate to the number of faces we can put names to.”
She adds an interesting bit to this:
Another team more recently found a correlation between the size of the amygdala, a brain region that processes emotional stimuli, and both the size and complexity of a person's social network.
I found this fascinating, as the amygdala is usually described as the part of the brain that creates reactions like jumping back from a rope because it might be (i.e. looks like) a snake.

This takes us to the “childhood friends” chapter … with has several thematic sub-sections (again making it tough to summarize). I guess what I'll do is drop in some quotes that catch my eye flipping through these parts (where I didn't drop in bookmarks). Here's one:
Many childhood friendships dissolve, leaving behind just a few fuzzy memories; others … lend a steady beat of continuity to life. Whether or not you're still in touch with your old pals – or even can recall them clearly – they surely helped shape you, for better or for worse.
She then runs through some examples, and media expressions of childhood friendships, from Charlie Brown to Harry Potter. I also found this bit of interest:
Friendships sprout much earlier than you might think. A one-year-old who has the chance to interact regularly with other little ones will indeed choose favorite playmates – first friends. Toddler buddies frolic in more complex ways than do non-friends. They might engage in pretend play … which requires more cognitive skills than tag or other literal pursuits.
It's also notable that gender is a major differentiating element in patterns of friendship – although the author doesn't particularly wander into the minefield of “nature vs. nurture” in that – and it seems that the gender differences are largely permanent (albeit expressing differently at various ages and in divergent contexts), and later parts of the book take a look at ways that individuals might try to improve, and/or enrich, these dynamics. Flora presents a wide array of sample situations here, from kids who were together for ethnic support (i.e. being the only Iranians in their school), to ones who gravitated around common interests (gamers, jocks, fashion fanatics, etc.). A data point that comes in here is “A Harris Interactive survey of Americans ages eight to twenty-four revealed that 94 percent had a close friend.”, so this does seem to be something fairly hard-wired.

I rather liked her chapter title for the look at the teen years: Friendship in Adolescence: Confidants and Partners in Crime … again, there are a lot of stories fleshing this out, but there are little gems of data (or near-data) such as:
As an adult, you still need to feel that your friends reflect your identity (or your desired identity), but that drive was probably more urgent when you were an adolescent. … In fact, to the average thirteen-year-old, friends are just as emotionally supportive as parents, and to seventeen-year-olds, they are more so.
As this suggests, the influence of parents, while not non-existent, is, by the mid-teens sort of a “background noise” for the kids whose emotional context is far more set by their friend group. Unfortunately, this means if you've not steered your children towards a positive set of kids, you may have blown it … as peer pressure is likely to trump anything you're going to be able to bring to the table, and this can easily (at the prodding of the worse kids) spiral into dangerous behaviors.

The author breaks down a lot of dynamics in various settings, and I found this bit of interest:
A key difference between middle school and high school emerges as late adolescents form romantic attachments, which sometimes take precedence over friendships. Still, it's all a continuum: The skills kids use to keep up their same-sex friendships are further developed through their romantic ties.
And, of course, as the years build up, the patterns shift from assorted types of groups, into pairs, and networks of pairs.

The “perks of friendship” chapter goes into a lot of psychological/sociological (many researchers are name-checked, but most get dealt with “in passing” rather than in any particular detail) dynamics on how friendships work among adults … including some very interesting material about the friendship of Matisse and Picasso (and later Renoir & Monet, and Gauguin & van Gogh). She examines a fairly wide array of situations (with stories which illustrate same), and breaks down the functions of friendship in these, but there isn't much that I found that would be useful to add here.

Flora is back to the “dark side of friendship” next, and she sort of frames this chapter with:
Since friends are powerful influences in your life, they can just as easily have negative effects as positive ones, especially if they are not right for you, or if the dynamic between the two of you is unhealthy.
She notes some recent investigative work which suggests that van Gogh did not cut off his own ear (as is the usual story), but lost it in a sword fight with his long-time associate Gauguin, as an extreme illustration of this. Much of what she discusses in this section is gender-based, with significantly different patterns of behavior being prevalent on either side of that divide … although there's quite a bit that's displayed universally (or, at least among the negative friend relationships) … and brings in examples of numerous studies on the details.

This is followed by her consideration of on-line friendships … which leads off with a heart-breaking story of a couple of gals who were both dealing with serious health issues (one with cancer, one with an immune system defect), who became best friends on line, although they lived on other sides of the planet (California and Australia). Somehow they never moved out of the on-line modality, and when one of them stopped responding (assumed dead), the remaining friend had no way of contacting anybody to get any information. It's a sad tale, but also somewhat cautionary (I must admit that I have “pixel people” who I'd be hard pressed to find “IRL” since I only know them by their on-line personas) for those who “live on-line”. The author does point out some research that indicates that, despite the ability to have thousands and thousands of web “friends”, most folks start to get overwhelmed if they try to keep up regular, on-going, active virtual relationships with more that the “Dunbar number” of 150 contacts. I guess biology beats out technology when it comes to our interpersonal relationships. She also looks at the generational gap, from those of us who remember pre-web communications, to those younger folks who have always been digital … and the attitudes that these differing realities engender. She has some quotes from literary critic William Deresiewicz on the subject of on-line relations, of which I found this particularly arch (speaking of his Facebook “friends”): “They're simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.” She later quotes some other researchers who note the somewhat disturbing factoid that: “the eating, drinking, and smoking of our friends who live hundreds of miles away appear to have as much influence as the habits of our friends who live next door”.

There are some interesting things in the final chapter, such as a study from Gallup that identifies eight “vital roles” that are likely to be in one's friend group. These are “Builders”, Champions”, “Collaborators”, “Companions”, “Connectors”, “Energizers”, “Mind Openers”, and “Navigators” … a model intriguing enough that I may have to pick up that book at some point. Here the author also looks at studies and stories on loneliness, and how being friendless causes a whole raft of physical and psychological ills. At the end of this chapter she does a very nice wrap-up, with advice for nearly each stage and situation … but it's a couple of paragraphs, and I guess I'm just going to leave it to you to find it instead of throwing in an overly big blockquote at the end of this review.

If you are interested in checking Friendfluence out, as noted up top, it's still available in the paperback edition (so might be at your local bookstore), but the on-line new/used guys have “like new” copies of the hardcover (which is what I found at the dollar store) for a penny (plus shipping), which means that it is an easy option. I quite enjoyed this, and found it (despite being heavier on the “stories” than on the “research”) full of educational items.

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Tags: book review

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