review of Marisa G. Franco's book Platonic

Franco doesn't think our society takes friendship seriously enough:

We don't just assume that friendship is a second-tier relationship; we act to make it so. Compared to our families and romantic partners, with friends, we invest less time, are less vulnerable, and share less adoration. We see romantic relationships as the appropriate relationship to hitch a flight to see each other, toil through tension, or nurse each other back to health. We see family as appropriate relationships to move across the country for or to stay committed to despite problematic Uncle Russ getting drunk and testy every holiday. ... while typically our friends are not as close to us as our spouse or sibling, they can be. The only reason they aren't is because the rest of us unnecessarily compartmentalize friendship into happy hours and occasional lunch dates. ... We scalpel the tissue of deep intimacy out of friendship....

I agree that friendships can be as deep and meaningful as any other relationship; most of the people I've felt the closest to and been the most open with have been friends. But the formations of those deep friendships often seem like mysterious, unrepeatable miracles. How do you build new ones? That's what this book is about.

Franco frequently looks at friendship through the lense of attachment theory, discussing how things are different for securely-attached, anxiously-attached, and avoidantly-attached people. (According to the quiz in the book, I'm a tie between anxious and secure, which sounds plausible. I like to imagine that a graph over time would show me slowly becoming less anxious and more secure.) I like how she describes it:

Attachment is what we project onto ambiguity in relationships...

Your attachment style influences what you assume the other person thinks about you, what you read into their behavior. And this may affect their behavior, according to "reciprocity theory":

If we are kind, open, and trusting, people are more likely to respond in kind. Secure people, then, don't just assume others are trustworthy; they make others trustworthy through their good faith.

And, of course, anxious or avoidant attachment styles come with a variety of counterproductive defense mechanisms.

There are six chapters each focused on a behavior that's important for building good friendships.

"Taking Initiative". Franco emphasizes that making friends takes deliberate effort. Waiting for it to happen "organically" is unrealistic.

One thing she recommends taking advantage of is the mere exposure effect: "through merely being exposed to someone continuously, we come to like them." So it's valuable to do things that put you around the same people over and over - for example, "choosing book clubs over happy hours, or a language class over a language workshop." Or "becoming a regular at your local coffee shop, bar, or gym." This advice rings true to me; pretty much all the friendships I've developed outside work or school have come from meetups that I attended consistently for months or years.

But even if you're around someone all the time, one of you still has to take the step of starting a conversation. Franco points out that rejection is far less likely than we tend to think.

A study by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago involved asking people to talk to a stranger on the train. Can you guess how many were shot down? None! According to Epley and Schroeder, "Commuters appeared to think that talking to a stranger posed a meaningful risk of social rejection. As far as we can tell, it posed no risk at all."

No mention of whether the study followed up with the strangers to determine how many of them were secretly thinking god, I wish this person would shut up and go away while acting pleasant. I suspect that number would be much larger than zero. But Franco cites other research indicating that people "systematically underestimated how much their interaction partner liked them". So on both pragmatic grounds (the "reciprocity theory" discussed above) and in the interests of accuracy, she advises: "Assume people like you."

"Expressing Vulnerability". Talking about my deepest sources of shame, guilt, or insecurity has been the foundation of some of the most meaningful and satisfying friendships in my life. So Franco didn't need to convince me of the value of vulnerability. But she did help me see some pitfalls more clearly. One is that trying to downplay something that's actually important to you is counterproductive:

It's when there's a mismatch of the content (this is me being vulnerable) and the nonverbal cues (this is no big deal) that misunderstanding can arise. I call this mismatch "packaged vulnerability." ... The issue with packaged vulnerability, Dr. Jackson shared, is that "emotions are the cues for other people, so they know how to respond." When we package our vulnerability to seem less helpless, we run a greater risk of receiving a flat response—not because people don't care, but because they don't sense that this is a moment when caring is important.

Franco also provides a useful perspective on "oversharing". Part of the charm of vulnerability is that it reveals how much we trust someone - but that doesn't work if they're aware they haven't given us any particular reason to trust them:

Instead of conveying that we like and trust the person we interact with, which occurs when we share gradually, oversharing often conveys instead that we need to get something off our chest, and any listener will do.

"Pursuing Authenticity". Franco views authenticity as "a state of presence we access when we aren't hijacked by our defense mechanisms." This means authenticity requires you to "restrain from indulging in what comes most naturally" when what comes naturally is a defense mechanism.

What interested me most in this chapter were some of its references:

"Harmonizing with Anger". Anger is an emotion that I don't have much use or respect for, so I wasn't expecting to like this chapter. But my complaints ended up being mostly terminological. Franco distinguishes two types of anger:

Anger of despair ... occurs when we have lost hope of healing a relationship. It confuses conflict with combat and sets out to defend, offend, punish, destroy, or incite revenge. Whereas anger of hope drives a pause for reflection on deeper needs and values, anger of despair blindly impinges.

Personally I wouldn't call "anger of hope" anger at all; it just sounds like (strong) dissatisfaction. Regardless, the chapter's key point is the importance of addressing conflict thoughtfully - not pretending the conflict isn't there, nor lashing out aggressively. I certainly agree with that.

Franco mentions a concept called "dynamic safety". A relationship that has dynamic safety is characterized not by a lack of conflict, but by an ability to repeatedly address and resolve conflict.

A good quote from this chapter:

If we get defensive during conflict, we also miss out on an opportunity for enlightenment. Conflict is one of the only times we get honest feedback about ourselves.

"Offering Generosity". I appreciate this chapter's pushback against overly simplistic notions of boundaries. Franco gives an example of an Instagram post encouraging people to "feel comfortable saying" things like "I'm drained. I will respond when I have energy again." I see memes like this a lot; they give the impression that a good friend should always be totally fine with you saying no to whatever, whenever.

Which is silly. As Franco says, "[i]t is appropriate to share these kinds of boundaries with someone we don't know well or don't care to, but when we get close, the rules of generosity change." I certainly believe everyone has the right to set whatever boundaries they feel like. But if you're in the habit of responding to your close friends' requests for support by telling them (however politely) to fuck off until it's a good time for you, you've got to expect that they're going to quickly stop considering you a close friend, and replace you with someone they can rely on.

You cannot develop deep friendship without being accountable to a friend in need ... When you choose to be a friend, you choose to show up. Research finds that support in times of need is a key factor that makes people more secure over time, and as other studies find, the more secure we are, the more supportive we are right back. When we feel prioritized in times of need—our needs attended to, our welfare considered—we reciprocate.

Presumably, part of why these memes are popular is that many people have been trained to have no boundaries - to use themselves up trying to meet every demand everyone makes of them. The chapter also devotes plenty of time to discussing the harm this causes, and how to steer a middle course by building mutually beneficial relationships.

There's also an interesting discussion about how sharing responsibility, not just having similar interests, is a key part of community:

Fay Bound Alberti, in A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion, argues the internet has given us relationships built on shared interests without accountability to one another. You can join the seltzer Facebook group, geek out on your shared love of carbon dioxide, but no one has to drive you to the hospital when the Soda-Stream rolls off the counter and clubs your foot. Fay writes, "A defining characteristic of community has historically been not only shared characteristics, which is the modern usage . . . , but also a sense of responsibility for others." Internet culture has led us to splinter friendship—to invite its joys but to dip out on its work.

"Giving Affection". As you'd expect, Franco argues that showing affection to friends is highly beneficial and that we generally don't do so as much as we should. (She also claims that people were far more affectionate with their friends in the 1800s, and that a rising fear of being perceived as gay led to a suppression of affection in the 1900s.) But it's important to tailor the mode and amount of affection based on the personality of the recipient. This quote she attributes to Kory Floyd is uncomfortably applicable to my younger self: "Anxious people never feel like there can be enough love. So they will smother the other person with affection to the point at which they can no longer keep up."

My favorite thing in the chapter is this:

...I've started "love scrolling" my friends—the opposite of doom scrolling. I scroll through my newsfeed and tell friends how great they're doing and how proud and happy I am for them, and I notice the warmth I feel.