Month of November , 2007

The marketing of friendship

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Nothing sells like youth, beauty, sex---and female friendships?

Pepperidge Farm is investing between 2 to 3 million dollars in a friendship-focused ad campaign designed to help sell its cookies, according to an article in today’s New York Times by advertising guru and journalist Stuart Elliott. This comes on the coattails of the recent Tupperware campaign that uses female friendships to sell its line of plastic leftover containers (see my blog entry on May 13th).

The new website for the campaign, artofthecookie.com, is intended to encourage women to connect with one another (and with Pepperidge Farm) over a cup of tea and naturally, cookies. Sally Horchow, co-author with Roger Horchow of The Art of Friendship: 70 Simple Rules for Making Meaningful Connections (St. Martin, 2006) serves as the campaign spokesperson, just as Brooke Shields carries the banner for Tupperware.

Print ads are expected to follow in popular women’s magazines like Country Living, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook with the tag line: “Friendship: Is yours an art form or a lost art?” The ads tap into our needs for social connectedness and should elicit positive feelings unless you are lonely or in the midst of a fight with a friend. Then you can go off into a corner and eat cookies, I guess.


On the new site are ten tips for connecting, advice on how to maintain friends from afar, and suggested excuses for hanging out and celebrating with friends. One tip for connecting (called Taking the Road Less Traveled) includes taking a new walking route, eating a different cookie than usual, choosing a different café, or meeting at a different time. A tip for maintaining long-distance friendships is to send a spontaneous gift like guess what?---a box of Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Other than the crass commercialism of the campaign, admittedly, most of the friendship messages are as sweet as maple syrup. But obviously absent is the perspective that some friendships are toxic, painful to maintain, and not worth saving. Now if this is sounding like sour grapes instead of sugar cookies, it’s merely because I believe that we need to dispel the myth that every female friendship has to last forever.

 

When it comes to friendships, who is counting?

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When it comes to friendships, it’s not how long or how close or how good. Instead, the latest craze seems to be how many. No one is quite sure how many friends you need or how many you can have. Given the number vacuum, some members of social networking sites like Facebook, My Space, or LinkedIn are accreting new friends like young boys collects baseball cards---acquiring impressive numbers of online “friends” that approach the hundreds and thousands.

Such excess raises the question---How many friendships, real, virtual or a combination of the two---can any one person reasonably handle? It depends on who you are and what it means for you to befriend someone. Are your friendships casual or close? Are they intense or intermittent? Are they brief or long-standing?

Every woman I know has a finite amount of time for friendship (which varies based on how she chooses to balance her social needs with the rest of her life). Additionally, some women are naturally more adept than others in both making friends and keeping them.

British anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar has conducted research that concludes that humans are functionally hard-wired to handle a maximum of 150 friends at a time. That number, 150, has been dubbed Dunbar’s Number. The term was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point and has been cited recently in a spate of news articles.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Carl Bialik (AKA the Numbers Guy) suggests that technology may actually enable us to expand the number of friends we can juggle simultaneously. He points out that social networking sites can help us maintain contact with people who are at the outer fringes of our circle of friends. Cell phones, emails, and IMs have similarly expanded our capability to reach out and touch someone.

“Prof. Dunbar isn't sold on the idea that social networks make his number outdated,” writes Bialik. “The research, he says, ‘made us realize people don't know what these wretched things called relationships are -- and that helps explain why we're so bad at them.’”

 

Friendship and the couch

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In a recent article in the UK Telegraph entitled, Could friendships be ruining your life? journalist Tim Shipman reports that the American self-help industry is booming as we are becoming increasingly aware of toxic friendships. He points to the pervasive use of the term in our culture---noting the growing number of popular books and TV shows on the topic (As further evidence, he adds that the subject has even been covered on Oprah Winfrey).

“The realization that friends can be the cause of unhappiness is fueling a rapid rise in the number of people consulting therapists,” writes Shipman. He reports that 10,000 psychologists and counselors are providing sessions focused on friendships. Whether or not the number is correct (and I’m not sure whether it is high or low) it raises the question of whether and when a history of fractured friendships should drive a woman into therapy.

How can you avoid the couch?

WHEN YOU ARE HANGING ON TO A TOXIC FRIENDSHIP

To extricate yourself from an unhealthy friendship, you need to overcome the guilt of leaving. Whatever the reason, if you are feeling uncomfortable in a relationship, you have the right and responsibility to put yourself first. Remember that good friendships are good for your health and happiness, but toxic ones are exactly that: toxic.

WHEN YOU ARE JILTED

All breakups are painful but particularly when they are one-sided. When that happens, it’s easy to feel rejected and take it very personally. Yet even these heal with the tincture of time. If your pain persists, talk out the problem with a sibling or spouse, or other uninvolved friend who can help you gain perspective.

WHEN A FRIENDSHIP FALLS APART

Just because you have a rift or a friendship drifts apart, it isn’t necessarily a sign of pathology. Friendships, even strong ones, come and go. If you can get over the “myth of best friends forever,” these breakups will be less painful when they occur.

When should you consider the couch?

Look for patterns. If you find that you REPEATEDLY make bad choices in friends---particularly those who are abusive, untrustworthy, and belittling---you may benefit from talking to a mental health professional. Also, if you find yourself jilted over and over and have no insight into why it is happening, you might benefit from therapy or counseling. Most professionals would agree that therapy is indicated when an individual’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors interfere with their ability to successfully carry out their roles---as friends, students, parents, partners, workers, or so forth..

The large majority of friendships tend to be dynamic, changing as individuals and their life circumstances change. While there shouldn’t be stigma or guilt associated with a broken friendship, there also shouldn’t be any stigma associated with seeking professional help when needed.

 

 


 

Baffled by Bratz & Biffles

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Besides the letter “L”---what’s the difference between a BFFL (best friend for life) and a BFF (best friend forever)?

When Nathalia Ramos, 15, the actress who plays Yasmin (one of the Mattel dolls that is brought to life in Bratz, the movie) was interviewed by a reporter from the Washington Post she said:

There are biffles and BFFs…A biffle (as in BFFL, or best friend for life) is a fun friend that you phone. A BFF is a best friend forever that you love.

Whether close friendships are for life or forever (let’s not nitpick), the story line of the movie is banal; it’s about four friends of different cultural backgrounds and interests who drift apart during high school, as best friends often do, and come together again (which is less likely to happen).

One critic disses the film (that opened last summer and will be released as a DVD over Thanksgiving) as an “excruciatingly inane high-school comedy inspired by a line of sexually suggestive dolls aimed at 9-year-old girls.”

While the overarching theme of this PG movie is the feel-good and exceedingly important topic of friendship, it’s unfortunate that the film perpetuates myths and stereotypes about young women---casting them as shallow, obsessed with guys, and materialistic---and that it is targeted towards younger girls who are looking for role models.

What miffs me most is that the film helps perpetuate the myth of BFF for another generation.

 

BFFs: Rudy and Bernie?

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Guilty as charged: The term BFF has morphed into a meaningless platitude due to extreme overuse. Now, the term is even being used to hurl an insult.

The evidence: The headline of a recent op-ed in the New York Times read, Rudy and Bernie: B.F.F.’s? The popular acronym “best friends forever” (typically used with gushing insincerity) was being used to criticize the blind loyalty that presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani displays towards his friend, Bernie Kerik. A former NYC police commissioner under the Mayor, Kerik was indicted last week on counts of tax fraud, corruption and conspiracy. Many critics believe that in their relationship, loyalty and friendship have trumped integrity.

What caught my eye---as a friendship blogger---is that the acronym wasn’t being used, as it typically is, as a term of endearment. The headline writer was using it pejoratively to describe a relationship that logically should have long since ended.

And the big news: Its appearance in the venerable Gray Lady suggests that the term BFF has moved from an IM shortcut to the accepted lexicon of language and print.

“Whenever you read that a candidate ‘values loyalty above all else’ — run for the hills,” wrote Times columnist Gail Collins. “Loyalty is a terribly important consideration if you’re choosing a pet, but not a cabinet member.”

Which again raises the question, should we maintain friendships and keep friends whatever the cost?

 

The need for friendship is elementary

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Transitioning from one school to another is always nerve-wracking for children and their parents but friendships can help ease the way. A new study of 600 children and 80 parents in the UK suggests that children who are separated from their friends as they move from elementary to secondary schools are “inherently more vulnerable.” These children are more likely to lose solid friendships and feel less confident, and are more prone to bullying.

 

However, when children move with siblings or with other friends, their transition is made easier because friends and siblings provide social support and “insider information” that helps them better navigate new waters. The four-year project conducted by Dr. Susie Weller and Irene Bruegel from London South Bank University was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

 

According to a press release from the Council, the benefits of childhood friendships are too often overlooked or placed in a negative light. “They [social theorists] have focused on the ‘youth problem’ - describing peer group interaction as having a negative affect on educational attainment and associated with destructive activities such as membership of a gang,” said Dr. Weller. "This often means that relationships such as friendship are sidelined, and little attention has been given to the positive and constructive resources and experiences such networks can provide."

 

Thanks to Sophia Casey, Age 9, for the beautiful picture of Best Friends. 

 

 

Working friendly, working smart

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Gallup researcher Tom Rath says that friend-friendly workplaces are more apt to spur energy, creativity, and productivity. In his book, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without (Gallup Press, 2006), Rath notes that employees who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs.

Some observers point to generational differences in attitudes towards workplace friendships. The old school baby-boomer thinking was that friendships and work don’t mix---and might even be downright dangerous. Friendships between supervisors and supervisees were considered even riskier than friendships among colleagues...
 

When female friendships fizzle

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Look at the November/December 2007 issue of Baltimore Smart Woman to read freelancer Elizabeth Heubeck’s article entitled, When Female Friendships Fizzle. She provides advice to women on why and how to end a fractured friendship. The piece stems from Elizabeth’s personal experience with a once-close friend and includes commentary from yours truly.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

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I read a fascinating thread called Breaking Up with a Friend on the balancing work/life forum of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The poster told about ending a friendship with a female friend who was overly critical and judgmental. (In its telling, the relationship sounded toxic to me.)

In a last-ditch effort to salvage the friendship, the poster communicated her discomfort honestly with her friend. After that difficult conversation, she never heard from her once-friend again. While she felt guilty, she knew she had done the right thing for her. Others on the forum expressed different opinions about whether she was right or wrong.

Many people ask me about the protocol of ending a friendship when you realize that it’s time (or past time) to let go. Here are a few thoughts---

 

Friendship by the Book: Songs without Words

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When a close friendship fades away, the passage of time makes it harder and harder to patch up the divide.

In Songs without Words (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), the writing of Ann Packer captures the fragility of female friendships as well as the complexities of repairing friendships when they falter.

Lifelong friends Liz and Sarabeth are like sisters: They share a long and rich history with one another. Over time, their lives take different paths when one remains single and the other marries and has children---yet the relationship remains steadfast...