The best advice my mom gave me as a kid, which cost me a lot of “friends”
Anyone who’s ever met my mom knows that she’s a feisty, no-nonsense woman who is not here to take anyone’s bs. She is polite and diplomatic, never cruel or insulting, but she also will tell you off in the most understated but hilarious of ways if you cross her or someone she loves. And from this attitude, I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons.
But the most important lesson I learned from her as a kid is something that she probably doesn’t even remember saying to me. I don’t believe it was a lesson she was determined all her life to teach her daughter. And she said it in such a casual way to me, that I doubt she realized the impact it would have. But it in fact had such a large impact on me, that it shaped who I am today. It also has impacted my relationships with people in drastic ways. And probably has cost me a ton of “friendships” in my life. But I wouldn’t trade this outlook on life for the world.
My friendships in elementary school were complicated to say the least. I moved from Phoenix AZ to Sacramento CA in the middle of the 1st grade, and then moved schools within the area to a brand new elementary school that had just opened up closer to my home to start the 2nd grade. Meaning in the 2nd grade I started out with 0 friends. And even though I ended up making a lot of friends and having a great year, things took a turn when I went onto the 3rd grade and was placed in a gifted class of only 7 other kids, who just so happened to be best friends with each other. And let's just say, they were not so open to letting me into their group To top it all off, some of my friends from the 2nd grade transferred schools, making it a lonely lonely year.
But then, 4th grade rolled around, and I was no longer forced into that gifted class, meaning I had a whole new crop of kids to befriend and get a chance to fit in with. I met a girl named Taylor, who would become my best childhood friend, and another group of about 8 girls who took me under their wing. I felt an incredible sense of belonging. I was getting invited to sleepovers, I made friendship bracelets with these girls, I always had people to eat lunch with, and a ton of people wanted to sign my yearbook.
I remember at the end of the school year, I was reading all of the nice things people had written in my yearbook, and telling my mom all the things that I had written for other people. At some point, I got around to telling her what I wrote in one particular friend's book. Let's call her Shana for privacy reasons.
“Shana your smile is so pretty, it makes the world shine.”
My mom was taken aback “Shana? You wrote that for Shana?” She then shrugged. “Ok...why did you write that?” Meaning what made Shana so pretty in my mind that I wanted to tell her that?
I thought for a moment. Honestly to me, Shana looked like a Marty Feldman with braces. “I don’t know,” I responded.
“So why did you write that on her yearbook?”
“Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Write nice things about people on their yearbooks,” I said.
“Well can’t you just write something you actually like about her? What do you like about Shana?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. “I don’t know what I like about her. So what do I write in her yearbook?”
My mom took no time answering: “Try, ‘Have a nice summer.’”
I thought my mom was crazy. She just didn’t understand that that was just part of girl protocol. You wrote over the top sentimental things about people you barely knew and it made them feel good about themselves. What was so wrong with that?
Then, the following school year, my mom took me to the mall and I ran into a girl I knew from school. She and I screamed when we saw each other and did the meadow run toward each other so quickly, Tchaikovsky would not have had enough time to play two notes. We hugged and babbled about how we couldn’t believe we saw each other and what we had purchased at the mall.
After the interaction, my mom asked me how long it had been since I’d seen her.
“About a day or so.”
My mom was pissed. “Then why did you two put on a show like you haven’t seen each other in years?”
I stammered. “I don’t know. I thought that was what you were supposed to do.”
"Look," she said. "If you're not excited to see someone, or if seeing them isn't a special deal, don't force an excited reaction. Just be natural."
These lessons of hers had no effect on me for the while. I still continued to give out compliments I didn’t mean and pretend like I was excited to see each and every person at school. When in reality, the only person I was ever actually happy to see was Taylor.
In the middle of my 7th grade year, Taylor moved away to Texas. And thanks to the strange way I liked to slick back my hair, my rolling backpack and my natural social awkwardness as a middle schooler, I was completely exiled by the people who used to be excited to see me and invite me to their parties. So when a new crop of girls took me in, the pressure was on to dress like them, talk like them, and take in the same movies and music as them. But even after all I invested in them, let’s just say, there was no loyalty in return.
I then moved middle schools, and was met with open arms to a whole new crop of people. And the hugs and compliments worked their magic once again. At this middle school, there was a daily ritual where you would show up to the courtyard before your first class and hug each and every person you knew. Even if you had just seen them 18 hours ago. I felt so well adjusted, as if everyone was my friend, and to this day, look back fondly at that 8th grade graduating class.
But then, because of where my parents’ house was geographically, I was not allowed to attend the same high school as all my 8th grade friends. And so I began high school knowing practically no one and having 0 close friends, once again.
A few months into high school was when the lightbulb in my brain went off. The kids I went to the 8th grade with had moved on with their lives at their high school and had left me in the past. Just like the girls from the 4th grade when I became an awkward middle-schooler. All those hugs, all those compliments and all that kissing up had resulted in 0 sustainable relationships. And yet, the one friendship I thought fondly back on was the one with Taylor. And I don’t ever remember giving her a compliment I didn’t mean. I don’t remember hugging her 11 times a day with a fake grin on my face. And if I had run into her at the mall, I wouldn't even have bothered to hug her and scream, because I'd just want to get into the laundry list of funny anecdotes I'd been dying to share with her. And if you asked me to list things I liked about her, I truly could.
I decided to take a different approach to high school. While of course there was always a part of me who longed to be popular and approved of by my peers, a big part of me was exhausted. How many times a day was I to pretend to be excited to see someone I couldn’t stand? How many times a day was I to hug someone I knew was talking badly about me? How much more of my time would be spent giving compliments I didn’t mean? I know politeness and professionalism are virtues, but I no longer had the emotional energy to pretend like I adored and cared deeply for every Tom Dick and Harry.
And high school went just fine. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t unpopular. I wasn’t praised, but I wasn’t hated either. I wasn’t getting invited to parties or getting nominated for prom queen or student council president, but I was voted best dressed, got asked to dances, and showed up in the yearbooks a good handful of times every year. And most importantly, I made some friends I still keep in touch with to this day, and knew that if someone really liked me, it was because of how well we got along and not because of arbitrary compliments I gave them.
I finally knew what my mother meant when she told me to tell Shana to “have a nice summer.” It basically meant to stop trying to force emotions, and invest so much into people I didn’t have a strong connection with or any loyalty to. It wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. I took this attitude with me to college and to the workplace after. And I won’t lie: It cost me a lot of relationships.
I watched all the people around me who continued to peck everyone on the cheek and butter up everyone they met do incredibly well in their social and professional lives. Some of them were incredibly authentic and just had a knack for getting everyone on their side. But others were straight up fake, and only were kind to those they could use.
During an internship in college, I remember standing and talking with my fellow interns and other company employees at an event, when someone from the office came in in a bizarre garish geometric patterned dress. My fellow intern complimented her on it, and the moment the woman in the dress left, the intern turned to the rest of us and said “That dress is absolutely disgusting.” After that, I never took a compliment this person gave me seriously, and stopped wanting to spend time with her socially. She could have just not mentioned the dress at all to be polite. But instead, it was so important not only that she gain social points with the woman by forcing a compliment to her, but that she also embarrass her behind her back to feel better than her.
In my professional and social life, I’ve come across countless people like this, and learned how to identify them quickly. And they do get ahead many times in life. Let’s just say that my old fellow intern got asked out on more dates, was invited to more parties and was promoted more times than probably you and I combined.
And surprise surprise, those types of people and their friends do not like people like me. Me telling them what I really thought instead of arbitrarily praising them when they asked me for my opinion, made their blood boil. Me saying a simple good morning to them when I saw them, instead of acting like the Queen of England has arrived did not bode well with them. And of course, when everyone I knew would rally together about a certain political or social stance, I would always ask them for all of the information on the subject and for them to explain themselves as to why they were on the side that they were, before deciding whether or not to jump on a bandwagon. This behavior has gotten me unfriended, blocked, ganged up on, and talked about behind my back. And while that all stung at the time, I really can't say I've lost anyone along the way who was worth being friends with. Because if they don't want to know an authentic version of me, they really are not interested in being my friend. So why consider them a loss?
I want my friendships to be authentic and relaxed. I want to surround myself with people who know the real me and still choose stick around. I want my compliments and word to mean something. Clearly I don't suggest we just all walk around speaking our mind openly no matter what - that would be such a hostile world to live in. But I don’t think we need to create inauthentic interactions and relationships to be happy.
Many people would disagree with me. And that’s ok. We all have different reasons for being the way we are. But I will never regret taking my mother's advice to be more authentic with the people around me. It may not get me as many likes on Facebook or as many invites to parties, but it makes me feel good that when I do get a positive response, it's because of who and how I really am, rather than a bubbly caricature of myself that is exhausting to fake. My policy is, if you think someone’s dress looks great, compliment it. And if you think it doesn't look so hot, just wish them a nice summer.