There were three women I knew years ago. They weren’t close friends, but fairly good mates – women I occasionally drank with, laughed with, thought decent and assumed relatively loyal. Then, when my father died, when I gave birth and developed postnatal depression, or when I got divorced a few years later, they respectively didn’t so much dump me as simply not fancy the hassle and boredom of seeing someone in grave distress. Fair enough, I thought. Lesson learned. The natural selection process is what sets mature friendships apart from those of your teens and early twenties. It’s good to find out who’s in for the long haul before everyone gives up any more precious time to something that ultimately isn’t worth it. So, I went through the big stuff with whom you might call the “lifers” – the top-tier friends – and thought no more about the deserters. It was no huge surprise when they didn’t get in touch when I remarried, wrote some books, turned 40, lost my mother, too. What was surprising was that when they were compelled finally to put fingers to keyboard, it was in order to ask for favours.
I know it’s happened to you, too. Because slightly incredulous but mainly raging angry, I took to Twitter and asked friends and strangers alike for their piss-taking-friend stories. In flooded tales of brass-necked liberty-taking on a jawdropping scale. There was the school bully who asked his victim for a character reference in adulthood. A man who’d barely heard a peep from classmates in a decade, suddenly in receipt of dozens of friend requests when he began testing smartphones for a living; the woman who heard from an old acquaintance so keen to recruit her on to a pyramid scheme that they almost forgot to convey sympathy at her house having burned down several years before; another who, after years of barely scraping a living as an illustrator, finally found some success and a raft of old, hitherto mute friends wanting a free, hand-painted mural for their kids’ nursery. People whose cancer had been wholly ignored at the time, suddenly popular again when healthy enough to do a little emergency childcare or dogsitting. The builders, interior designers, solicitors, computer engineers, maths tutors – all surprised to find former friends keen to reminisce about the good old days at precisely the moment they needed their professional services for mates’ rates.
“Can you do me a quick favour…?” they say, before (in my case) asking me for family-law advice (funnily enough, that divorce you dumped me over at the time actually gave me some useful insight), some social-media posting on a new project, a free press release written for a hipster teapot company (yes, really). Where, one wonders time and time again, do people get their balls? And did they blag those from some previously ignored sucker, too?
Where, one wonders time and time again, do people get their balls? And did they blag those from some previously ignored sucker, too?
If you really are that self-serving and exploitative of the goodwill of others, then at least have sufficient shame to conceal what you’re doing under the thin carapace of some catch-up correspondence or preliminary drink or dinner – a little clear blue water between renewed contact and breezy request. But, no, these are the sleeper-cell friends who, seemingly devoid of any self-awareness, engage in minimal personal housekeeping – “I hope you’re fine (half my family is dead at this point) … long time, no speak (literally decades, dude – I’ve started my periods since we last saw one another)…. we must catch up at some point” (we both know this will never happen) – before getting to the true purpose of the email: the bare-faced blag.
And as much as most of us have been on its receiving end, we can no doubt also relate to the impulse. We all need contacts, different skill sets and occasional favours and inevitably, from time to time, flick through our mental Rolodexes for those who can help in a crisis. The difference is that the vast majority of us would feel the nibble of conscience, hear the self-critical tut, which would stop us asking someone we’ve neglected, never helped, for whom we’ve failed to show up, physically and metaphorically, to do something we’ve no right to expect. It’s an inconvenient lesson and a reminder that friendship is graft. It sometimes involves sitting wordlessly on stuffy hospital wards, or engaging in circular conversations on futile relationships, not agreeing with someone’s life choices or coping mechanisms, mopping up tears of grief for long weeks and months on end. It’s sometimes boring, frustrating, too time-consuming and, occasionally, our heart isn’t in it and we bail. But in doing so, we know that when we fail to do the work, we forfeit the rewards. We surrender the right to ask for favours without looking a manipulative, cynical tool.
Let’s not pretend, however, that there is no satisfaction is declining the opportunity to help someone who has wronged you or, even better, simply ignoring their request and leaving them to realise why. Part of adulthood is knowing not only that one needn’t help or please anyone, but learning the power and vindication of “no”. If they’re the sort of a person who takes others so badly for granted, then perhaps it’s no coincidence, and certainly no tragedy, that the friendship failed to have legs. Meanwhile, bask in the warmth-giving joy and sincerity in doing a good friend a much-needed favour, and knowing you’ve cumulatively earned the right to one day call it in.