Banter and besties: is friendship in peril?

Saturday 28 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 1-3The politics of the personal

Partners:

Earlier this year, it was announced that Prince George is to attend a private primary school where pupils are discouraged from having best friends because this ‘could leave other children feeling ostracised and hurt’. This prompted some debate about the virtues and perils of friendship.  If once we might worry about someone without friends, now we seem uncertain about the merits of new forms of friendship. While many people have more ‘friends’ than ever via social media, online abuse amongst Facebook friends is now the focus of concern.  Last year, the American Sociological Association declared: ‘We believe that competition for status and esteem represents one reason behind peer cyberbullying.’  Others wonder whether online networks are watering down a real meaning of friendship and intimacy. A study by Oxford University psychology professor Robin Dunbar showed that while the average Facebook user may have hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’, only a small number of those friends can be counted on during tough times. Meanwhile, the rise of ‘oversharing’ has seen people share intimate details of their private lives with vast networks of people rather than confining such intimacies to their close friendship groups.

Exclusion from a friendship group is now an officially recognised definition of bullying.  We are told that being rejected in the playground ‘can reduce self-esteem, a sense of control, and a sense of having a meaningful existence’.  There are worries that when people ‘block’ and ‘de-friend’ those they strongly disagree with, this can give rise to ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘communal reinforcement’, which maintain irrational or prejudiced views because we never hear them challenged. But while this may be a problem if we are trying to discover the truth about something important, sometimes, we just want to relax with people. While schools now have ‘best practice’ lessons in how to be a good friend, can such an instrumental approach to friendship ever be genuine? Inevitably, friendship is spontaneous, naturally exclusive and based on judging who we want to associate with at the expense of those don’t.

We seek the company of people whose outlook we mostly share, in front of whom we can let off steam. Their company is more pleasant and more comfortable than those with whom we co-exist in strained politeness. With friends we can express, or just ‘try out’, outrageous opinions and jokes, send up individuals we know, share ironical references. We can enjoy making fun of things we find ridiculous, even gently mock each other based on the intimate knowledge we have accrued about each other.  Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (1898 / 1899), chosen by Sir Simon Rattle as part of his first concert at the Barbican as the new music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, is a musical sketch of the composer’s circle of close friends. Each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or some incident known only to two people. This composition reflects the age-old way that mates enjoy in-jokes, gossip and ‘banter’, as an important part of bonding between people in what Aristotle called ‘friendships of pleasure’.

Yet these days such lighthearted ‘banter’, especially amongst workmates, can be considered problematic.  Under the Equality Act, employees can bring claims of discrimination where they believe they have been subjected to unwanted jokes and banter. Inappropriate remarks that ‘leave people feeling hurt, humiliated and excluded’ can lead to complaints of bullying and harassment. Equality and diversity training now includes zero-tolerance strategies to replace banter amongst workmates with ‘respect’ for all.

Are attempts to clamp down on certain forms of banter an assault on natural human bonding? If so, does this matter, given the distress it can cause to its targets? Are exclusive friendship groups dangerous protected bubbles, shielding us from new opinions? Are superficial notions of online friendship and anti-bullying policies that teach us how to make friends eroding more intimate forms of association? Do we need to rethink what friendship really is?