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Interview: Kate Leaver Talks Friendship

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“I think reciprocity is a very important part of a friendship or, in fact, any type of relationship. I think having a balance where both of you are investing equal amounts of time and energy and love and attention into that relationship is really important.”

Kate Leaver is a journalist from Sydney, Australia, who now lives in London. Ms. Leaver has contributed to a variety of publications, including The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Guardian, Vogue, and Vice. But, in 2018, Ms. Leaver published her first book, The Friendship Cure, which examines the value and importance of friendships in the 21st Century. Covering topics from the perennial question of whether men and women can “just be friends,” to the effects of friendship on mental and physical health, to what happens when a friendship ends, Ms. Leaver chronicles the important topic of interpersonal relationships and how they fit into these times. She joins Merion West and Kambiz Tavana to discuss how she came to write the book, her methods for understanding friendship, and the relationship between the online world and connecting with others.

Ms. Leaver, thank you for joining us today. Can you talk about how you came to write this book?

Basically, I read an article in 2015 that was by a journalist named Julie Beck in The Atlantic. She said that we tend to lose our friendships as we get older, get married, and have kids, and that we become lonely as we get older. I was really frightened and alarmed by this article because I really treasure my friends. I was at the age where a lot of my friends started getting married and having kids, and I just wished that I could say to them, you know, “I wish we could make our friendships a priority” and sort of preserve those friendships and relationships as long as we can, no matter what happens.

So, I just started reading up on things to do with friendship—and ultimately on loneliness as well. It just kind of sparked an interest in me big enough to write a whole book about it. It was essentially a very, very long reply to the article that I originally read. I wanted to say that even if life happens, and we commit to a relationship and we have children and we build careers for ourselves—I think, particularly when these big life events happen—it’s really important to have your friends close by and to keep putting energy and time and love into your friendships.

I think that was really the reason. It was just a genuine belief that we should look after our friendships above all else, and that’s what inspired me to write the book. I started speaking to experts and doing lots of research.

The topic of friendship is a very complicated and multifaceted idea to tackle. When you started to go about your research, what made you choose from which angle you’d approach the subject? I read your book, and you tried to have a very holistic approach. And I know that there are challenges when you want to do that. How did you manage to do that?

I wanted to be able to have a book where I could speak about genuinely important things like the epidemic of loneliness and how being on our own can affect us physically and mentally. But I also wanted a space where I could talk about TV show romances, the television show Friends, and some of the silly things I’ve done and talked about with my friends. So I guess I just chose angles that really genuinely interested me, and sometimes it was a very serious topic. And sometimes it was more trivial. I wanted to create a space where we could talk about all of it. That’s why I was able to do a chapter on: if men and women could be friends, as well as a chapter on how to be a better friend when your friend is suffering from a mental health issue.

It’s just the way I view journalism: to be able to do the highbrow stuff as well as the lowbrow stuff and really encompass as many different angles as I can on a subject. I was very aware that I couldn’t comprehensively cover the entire topic of friendship because that would be impossible. There are so many complicated issues and so many variables and so many different factors, and we all experience friendship differently. But I wanted to look at my own experiences: the experience with my friends, the experience with experts and all sorts of strangers that I came across on the Internet and in my research. I wanted to cover as much ground as I possibly could, and I’m quite confident that I did that.

Although you try to keep yourself centered on friendship, all of your chapters are, in some interdisciplinary way, connected to each other. You cover seemingly-different areas, but their roots are very connected with each other, which, I think, is the whole messy and sweet thing about friendship. You cannot take some parts away and, at the same time, just view the rest of it. All of the parts are connected with each other in some way?

Yes, I think that would be right. I think they’re all connected by the topic of friendship and also just connected by my opinion and by my stance on things. It just sort of happens naturally when you write a book, that you try to connect all of the chapters together so that it makes sense as a whole. So I guess that’s what I set out to do when I decided to write something as long as a book. I guess I could have written, perhaps, a series of different articles or different essays, but I wanted it to make sense all together. So I guess what you’re saying is correct.

It’s hard to divide your book into small chunks, but would you agree that one of the main themes of the book is endorsing a sort of moderation in the use of social media and not taking it too seriously?

Yes. I mean, I think social media is really complicated because I think a lot of people like to blame social media for our loneliness crisis. They like to blame social media for a lot of things including, bad self-esteem or poor confidence, even depression and anxiety, particularly among young people. I think if you’re using social media in a dangerous way, or in an unhealthy fashion, then, yes, social media can cause nasty feelings. It can make you feel more alone. It can make you feel less confident. It can cause you to compare yourself with other people.

But I think social media itself is not to blame. If you would like to use the word “moderation,” I would say: use social media in moderation as much as possible. I think to use social media strategically and with emotional intelligence and compassion is the best way to do it because I think it’s entirely possible to use social media for good. We can use social media to make friends, to strengthen old friendships, to reconnect with people we haven’t seen, to bolster our confidence, to advertise our careers, to make new networking opportunities, to speak to people in different parts of the world. It does all sorts of wonderful things if we use it in a sensible, rational, smart way.

Basically, I think it’s possible to use social media in a self-sabotaging way, but if you’re smart about it and you’re using it in a healthy, moderate way, then it is possible to do great things with it. And that is one of the big messages I wanted to get across in the book, because I think we have a tendency to blame a lot of our bad human behavior on social media, on the internet, on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. But I think that’s passing the blame onto a medium rather than acknowledging that we’re the problem and that perhaps our use of social media is where the problem is. And we need to address that.

Would you say that reciprocity is the main part of any kind of relationship as a friend?

I think that’s a really lovely way of looking at it, and I think reciprocity is a very important part of a friendship or, in fact, any type of relationship. I think having a balance where both of you are investing equal amounts of time and energy and love and attention into that relationship is really important. If there’s a power imbalance, or an imbalance in the amount of time and energy someone puts into a relationship, that could be very damaging. I think there are probably a lot of friendships like that out there.

I would also note that I think things like mutual respect, love, kindness, compassion, listening properly, serious conversations and emotional intelligence are really important things as well. But certainly, reciprocating love and respect and having an even input into a relationship is extremely important.

While you were researching your book, which book had the most effective influence on you?

If I could choose an interview rather than a book, then it was probably my interview with Professor Robin Dunbar. He’s an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University.

Oh, yes, the magic number: Dunbar’s Number.

Yeah! Exactly, Dunbar’s Number, yes. He’s fantastic, and he’s written a number of books and papers on the subject of friendship. I went down to Oxford and spoke to him for a couple of hours, and it was just so interesting. Being a journalist, I can comment from a research perspective, from a humanities perspective, from a creative perspective, but I’m not a scientist, and I don’t have access to that kind of thinking or that approach or those resources. There’s no way I could come up with any of that stuff on my own, so it was just fantastic to speak to someone who thought about the whole issue so differently.

Usually when someone says, “I’m not a scientist,” the next sentence is, “I don’t believe in climate change.” You know that, right?

Oh, God! No, I definitely believe in climate change.

There’s a book by Jean Twenge; she’s a PhD. It’s called iGen. She wrote a deep book about the social media and youth. You say that we have to be mindful of the positive uses of social media. I think you would say, “That’s nice that you use Twitter, but try to meet people in person around the neighborhood too.” Is that fair to say?

Yes. I think it’s important to have both digital friendships and real-life, in-person friendships. And I think that it’s really important that we talk to our neighbors and make new friends where we live and where we work. I think it’s preferable to see someone in person. Having eye contact and body contact and being able to hear someone and be in the same place as them is really important.

I don’t think you can match that online, but I do think you can have valid, important relationships that start online— or even exist purely online. I know people who have never met each other in person but have beautiful friendships online, and I think that can be very important. But I would never ever recommend that somebody have a digital-only life. It’s really important to be seeing people in-person. I would definitely encourage people to be making friends with their neighbors, their colleagues, anyone in their life that they can.

But there comes two dangers with that. First of all, having digital relationships is easier than real life and it’s very tempting for people, don’t you think?

Yes, I think there are certain types of people that that would appeal to. Introverted people, people who are frightened or unable to leave the house, people with disabilities, perhaps people with autism, people with language difficulties; there are groups of people who might find it easier to connect with someone online, and I think that’s perfectly fine if that works for them. I think it’s wonderful that they can use the Internet and social media to connect with people when, otherwise, they might just be on their own. I think it’s very different for different people.

And absolutely, it’s tempting just to have online relationships because it can be easier. It’s less confrontational; you can talk about what you want to say before you say it. You have a kind of protective layer of social media between you and the other person. But I think if it’s possible to see someone in person, then it’s lovely to do that and important to do that if you can.

I have two children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. My older one, who is high-functioning and verbal, cannot differentiate the levels of complexity in human relationships and language. The online world makes it even harder for them. So, for him, even following the facial cue on sarcasm and jokes is hard to do. Social media can make it even harder for him. 

Going back to social media, I know we have to be mindful and use it responsibly. But, at the same time, have you noticed the other side, the teach companies, have huge amounts of science and research on how to addict you to their platforms? I’m not sure that it’s fair to ask users to put their mindfulness and responsibility to the test because they are in a fight, which is not at all equal. 

I think that is such a good point to bring up. A really, really important one. I think some of their profitability lay with the users of social media in terms of how they use it and if they use it long-term. But I completely acknowledge that there is this other kind of rebellious thinking in that some companies are using algorithms and technology to manipulate people, to make them addicted to the feeling of getting online. It’s sort of becoming so obsessive that they are becoming addicted to a particular platform or a particular type of social media. I think that needs to change. I think that we need to talk about it and create awareness of the types of manipulation going on.

I think that’s really important because it’s partly personal responsibility but partly being manipulated by an enormous multi-billion-dollar industry. I think you’re absolutely correct. Look at all of the problems with Facebook. I think Twitter failed a lot of the time to protect its users, and I think there are problems on each of the different platforms that we use, in terms of social media. It’s the businesses’ responsibility to better protect their users, but people also need to get smarter about their personal use of social media. We really need to demand that businesses change the ways that they manipulate us and control us.

In reading through your book and doing my research, I came across the works of Deborah Tannen. She’s a linguist, and her latest book is called You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships. When you were writing your book, did you notice that the language of men’s friendships and women’s friendships were different? And if so, in what way?

Generally speaking—and I have to make the generalization in order to make a point because not everyone takes friendships the same way within the same gender—but I do think that there are differences between men and women in how they approach friendships.

I think it’s because women are conditioned to be the communicators. They are told that they can be vulnerable, that they can be open with one another, that they can share secrets, and that they can speak with one another. Men, on the other hand, are often taught to be stoic, to be emotionless, to be masculine. And a lot of that means to draw back from one another and not share that vulnerability. I think men tend to have friendships that are more activity-based and contain loyalty and strength and camaraderie and humor. With women, it’s often more of an exchange of vulnerability. It’s talking, it’s communication.

The best way I’ve had it explained to me is that men are shoulder-to-shoulder against the world whereas women are face-to-face. Women are more likely to sit down with one another and put the world right in conversation, whereas men are more likely to go and bond over doing an external activity. Those are the main differences.

Thank you so much, Ms. Leaver.

You’re welcome! So lovely to speak with you.

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