Chapter 4.Sociability: Friendship


The Cleaning Party

We normally imagine that we are in a fit state to receive our friends when we have, finally, cleared away most of what we normally are: when we’ve hidden away the sweets and the half-eaten crisps, when we’ve tidied up the magazines and jumpers, when we’ve slipped our tear stained diary under the bed, fluffed up the cushions and put together a hugely unrepresentative meal consisting of three courses, dark chocolate truffles, an Italian wine and a mint tea infusion. This, we believe, is what will best enable us to be known, accepted and liked.

The impulse is very understandable but it is also, in its poignant way, very counterproductive. We spend so much of our time striving to be ‘normal’ and – as we believe – more like the people we admire, but we fail to notice how much we are disguising our reality and constructing a front that is more likely to intimidate than reassure others. If the impulse behind friendship is at heart a longing to be seen and for the true nature of our lives to be understood with generosity, then it is paradoxical that so many of the social encounters we choreograph are staged and guaranteed not to foster the kind of self-revealing intimacy we seek.

Rather than creating an artful ‘false self’ for public occasions, we would be wiser – and more daring – to use gatherings specifically to show people we are drawn to what our lives are truly like. Instead of the standard dinner party, we might invite our friends around to a cleaning party: an evening where we present our dwelling exactly as it normally is, and – for good measure – ask our friends if they might accompany us in a bit of light but thorough housekeeping.

We might, together, empty out the fridge, change the beds, vacuum the living room and sort out some books into ‘keepers’ and ‘charity shop’ piles – before sitting on some stools and cracking open a few tins of baked beans. Rather than insisting on our normalcy and intimidating others with our seamless existence, we might openly display the mess in our clothes cupboards and ask our friends for help in differentiating between summer and winter wardrobes. 

However pleasant it may be to do nothing very much with someone other than sit on the sofa and sip some wine, it can be far more beneficial to a union to set to work on a task; to have a job to do. This is – for example – why it is generally so much easier to get close to people at university than in later life; for university friends will, through circumstance, naturally end up doing so much more with us: together we’ll make beds, go to the laundromat, struggle to cook a chicken – and in the process, we’ll laugh, penetrate each others’ social defences and see each other as fellow vulnerable suffering humans. There is simply a limit to how well we can ever get to know someone with whom we will only ever sit in a coffee shop..

Without anything openly deceitful being meant, much of the reality of our lives is under-represented in the picture of ourselves we give to others. We appear far more competent, focused, respectable, domestic and unpanicked than we are. We think it is polite to plaster over our imperfections and, to an extent, it may be. But in the long-term, it means that we are continuously implying that we are someone else to those we care most about. 

In reality, everyone is in fact spending quite a lot of their time putting socks back into pairs, crying, shopping for groceries, vacuuming, eating junk food, thinking of their death and taking out the rubbish bins. We might imagine it to seem insulting to invite a good friend around – and then to hand them a toilet brush. But in fact it is a gesture of the truest kind of friendship: a chance for another person to step into the reality of our lives and to know us for who we really are.

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