Not acquaintances. Or mates. Not people you know or wave at across the street. Proper friends – the ones who know more about you than where you work or how many kids you’ve got. The ones who can spot when you’re about to crumble, who’ll sweep you up and stick you back together.
You see, it’s relatively easy to befriend people on Facebook. To link them in or add them to your contacts list. But how do you then take your friendships to the next level? How do you move them from back of the stands small-talk to front-row friendship?
These things start off fairly gently. With the initial approach when, under cover of chitchat, you size each other up. Is this person like me? Do we connect? Both parties are scanning for shared values, markers of similarity. Both are searching for specifics: someone to reinforce my prejudices. To support my world-view. A tacit alliance, where we are equally affirmed.
Olive branches are tentatively profferred: ‘Did you watch the match? Yeah, me too. Ronaldo eh, what a miss..’ Relief as you successfully negotiate stage one: ‘It’s okay honey. They like Homeland too’ .
So far, so good. You arrange to meet: coffee maybe or a quick pint. Maybe even dinner. You spray the bathroom and get out the non-chipped plates. The evening is a success: ringing with polite but genuine laughter and the sound of chinking glasses. You have the same taste in music. You talk about house prices, schools, the new supermarket. They’re like you and they seem to like you too.
But this is where it starts becoming a little more tricky. Stages one and two are well worn and signposted. They’re oiled with pleasantries. But stage three friendship is very different. Stage three friendship means taking it to the next level:
Past the niceties and the small talk.
Through the minefields of family, faith, politics and life.
Beyond what’s convenient and appropriate and easy.
What does it look like? Sadly, there’s no map: but there might be signposts. Talking – even crying together. Helping – especially when it doesn’t suit. Opening up. Disagreeing. Prioritising. Being vulnerable. Listening. Asking questions. Calling in favours, (though you’ve exhausted your supply). Sharing. Holidaying together. Forgiving. Being honest, even when it costs.
Life can be lonely. We want to connect with others, but we don’t know how. We’re scared they’ll settle for our masks – but that’s sometimes because we refuse to take them off.
Stage three friendship is a calculated risk. It’s a baring of the throat, not knowing if what’s exposed will be cut or caressed. But here’s the thing: to move beyond small talk, maybe we need to take off the armour.