Nominal Versus Real Friendship

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Emily Bazelon has a piece at XX factor that strikes a chord with me:  how hard it is to keep friends when your economic circumstances radically change.  In 2001, when I lost my job and was dong a bunch of odd stuff to keep my finances together, I found it hard to hang out with my old friends from business school.  Some of them just didn't understand that a Chinese food dinner with a couple of beers wasn't a discount treat, but an unaffordable luxury--and when they figured it out, offered to pay, which seemed like a quick route to life as a permanent sponge.  Others didn't quite know what to say, and avoided me.


Some of them I avoided, because they had what seemed like a psychopathic need to view my straitened circumstances as my own fault, even though the broad unemployment rate was rising.  They would ask me if I'd done X,Y, and Z--say, network, send resumes, try volunteering for what I wanted to do--and when I said yes, and that I'd also done A, B, and C, they got quite aggressively, visibly annoyed.  It felt a little bit like being interrogated by a special prosecutor.  As far as I could make out, they were trying to prove that what had happened to me couldn't possibly happen to them. 

Nonetheless, I kept plenty of friends from business school, and other, flusher eras.  And I did it all with four little words, which I practiced saying in a mirror for a while before I tried them on my friends.  Those words were:  "I can't afford it."

It's remarkably easy to keep those friendships, or at least the valuable ones, through a recession.  Those were the people I told the obvious, which is that I didn't have any money.  Then we did things that didn't involve money.  Those were the people who offered suggestions, but took no offense if those suggestions weren't useful. 

Of course, it's always hard when a friend or loved one is suffering.  You will never say or do the perfect things you want to.  The difference between the friends I kept, and the ones I lost, is that the ones I kept were trying--trying to take care of the friendship, and a friend in need.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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