on trying to find friends

Camicao writes a good post about the difficulties of finding friends once you're out of graduate school. I know I've touched on this topic myself several times in the past year, but it's definitely been on my mind lately. His post focuses on the issue of boundaries: (how) do you form friendships with people across the tenure line? with students? with staff?

In general, I'm a big believer in social boundaries. And I think most junior faculty, and anyone new in a job, would do well to avoid crossing most of those category lines until they have been at a new institution for at least 6-12 months. It can take that long to really understand the culture of a new place, and to learn who you can really trust. There are some departments where faculty and graduate students routinely play basketball together, socialize at parties, and even form romantic relationships. There are some where the slightest appearance of faculty-student friendship would be cause for gossip. You are in the fishbowl during your first year at a new place -- everyone really is watching you. And yet, you are new in town and probably desperate for some social contact. It's a really tough situation.

And now 8 years later, it's easier in some ways (I'm not under the threat of tenure any more, and I know who of my colleagues are paranoid, who are the gossips, and who are OK) -- but the basic problem of finding friends -- real friends -- remains. Part of this is my own fault -- I don't attend church, I can't muster enough idealism to get involved in political campaigns in this Red state, and when pressed to think of a hobby that would somehow introduce me to people, I really can't come up with much. I have met people at the gym, and at yoga, though those are just casual "say hi" acquaintances.

Two of the best friends I've made since living here required me to loosen my own sense of propriety and boundaries. Because many of our students are working adults, they are often my age or older. A couple of these former students and I have, once they are no longer in my class or potentially in my class (i.e., graduated, or they were never in our dept to begin with -- I teach several non-specialist courses) carefully negotiated the shift from student-teacher to friends. It doesn't always work out, but when it has we've been able to get past the institutional hierarchy that once existed. But that was a risky-feeling step for me as a junior person, one taken only very carefully. My friend M is now one of my best friends. The sad part is that he and his partner moved away a couple years ago, so now he's another long-distance telephone friend. I have several of those -- it's harder to find someone you'd want to share a meal with, or go see a movie with.

I've never wanted to become close friends with any of my colleagues -- my awareness of that professional relationship prohibits the kind of trust and sharing that is part of a real friendship for me. I'm friendly with some of them, sure -- but our friendship won't ever get to a very deep level. Even the best of them share a lot of things with other people (gossip is an academic vice I think) and that makes me feel cautious.

And, as adults, it can feel very risky when you try to meet new people, or try to move a casual acquaintance to a new level. The dog park where I take our dogs to run every evening serves for me like the neighborhood bar -- if you feel like chatting with the other regulars, you can, but you don't have to have any very involved relationship with anybody. Plus, there are always the dogs to talk about. Recently, two different people at the dog park made overtures of friendship, suggesting that we arrange to get together sometime for coffee or a meal. I responded enthusiastically in both cases -- surprised at one, but not at the other. And yet, nothing has come of it. Maybe we're all just too busy. Maybe they had second thoughts. Maybe we're concerned about what would happen to the easy casual chitchat at the park if we tried to have a more sustained conversation and it didn't work.

The only consolation is that everyone I know who is in my age bracket (30s/40s) and who doesn't have kids feels the same way. It's hard to meet people who you'd want to be friends with, and who have the time or energy to be friends. Because, quite frankly, my own time and energy are pretty limited -- which tends to cut off potential friendships before they can happen. College is easy because you have a lot of hanging around time. Even graduate school involved long coffeeshop hours etc. Who has that kind of time these days?