Sunday, August 30, 2009

My (Only) Friend (The End)

Recent outings have provoked my thoughtful speculation on the politics of prefixing "my friend" before introducing one's companions. I have a weird sense that the weight of the cue is considerably less pervasive in LGBTQ circles, but maybe I only think that way because of my limited perspective of said circles.

Here is a situation: [Miss A introduces Mister B to Mister C] "Hey, C. This is my friend B."

Good. A counterpoint: [Mister X introduces Miss Y to Anygender Z] "Z, hey, how's it going. This is my friend Miss Y."

I have a theory about this. A theory of coded language. In the first situation, A has introduced B as "my friend" because she wants C to know that B is decidedly *not* her boyfriend, just a boy who is her friend. Translation: "Hey, C. This is my friend B, whom I'm not dating. I'm making the fact clear that I'm NOT dating B because I want you to know that you have a chance." B could indeed be introduced to any acquaintance of A as "my friend": after all, A wants everybody to know that she's available and looking. If A introduces B just as "this is B" to C, she is hoping that C suspects the most and will back off in any unwanted advances.

Now the counterpoint. X, being a heterosexual male, has probably been raised to believe that emotion + masculine = negative connotations. Translation: "Z, hey, how's it going. This is my friend Miss Y. I kind of think I want to date her, but maybe I'm just in it for the conversation, and I'm confused about whether or not she likes me, and I'm not sure how to recognize whether or not what I feel for her is anything more than genial friendship. I'm too much of an emotion-coward to define the relationship at this point, so I will continue to qualify her during introductions as 'my friend' because I wouldn't want her, myself, or anybody else to suspect that something romantically emotional, and therefore bad, might be going on."

Oh, the dynamism of language. I'm not kidding when I say that every example I've ever witnessed of this prefixing phenomenon fits my defining criteria. I defy you to produce a situation (real, not hypothetical) that disproves my theory.

The final word: for women, "my friend" means "my friend;" for men, "my friend" means "my confusion."

[Pam: "Hey, Nico, this is Jim Morrison." // Jim, later, to Nico: "Oh yeah, that's my friend Pam."]


  1. Or the even more perplexing "...hey C, this is B, a friend of my brother's whom I met maybe a year and a half ago in missouri but now is here in california. Crazy, right, C? Small world...small world, C."
    Though in more useful contribution to the dialogue, I think you could be right about your final conclusion. I think an example though that might not fit into that is when introduced with "my friend from school" or "a friend from back home", etc. because this is actually offering more information and it would be awkward to say "This is Nigel, from Yale."

  2. Yeah, the addenda to "my friend" is crucial.

    Also, A forgot to tell C that B recently found out A also knows *D*, whom B knew from college, and whom A dated in high school.

  3. Interesting, for sure. It strikes me that the code is an insistence: The speaker does not want any confusion about the relationship and is imposing his/her view of the relationship on both the "friend" and the listener.

    I always find it awkward when someone I don't know well or haven't known for long refers to me as his/her "friend," and it seems that within this code there is no substitution for any additional levels of companionship -- "new friend," I guess, maybe, or as the previous commenter mentioned, some version of "my friend from school." Even those qualifiers, though, seem to detract from your essential point about the code itself and change the foundation of the discussion. I guess I mean that the code only allows for the clarification of the relationship within a romantic/not-romantic dichotomy, where other types of relationship are unnecessary to clarify against, or perhaps are just unimportant to the speakers/listeners.

    And to address your mention of the LGBTQ community's use of the word, to speak only for my experience, I would note that the use of this code is dramatically different -- but not at all less weighty. When a person who is known or suspected to be LGBTQ introduces someone as "my friend," it raises questions about their relationship rather than confirms the nature of it (as you've suggested for hetero interactions) -- the "my friend" tag being such a common euphemism for LGBTQ people engaged in a (potentially even secret) romantic relationship. Therefore, if the speaker is known to be LGBTQ with a history of calling his/her romantic partners "boyfriend," "girlfriend," "partner," "lover," or something else, then "my friend" is a clear enough label and, I suspect, would follow closely to your observations of its use within hetero communication. However, if that person represents the "questioning" part of the Q or has not come out but is suspected of being LGBTQ or any number of other variations on the identity, his/her use of "my friend" is an invitation for the listener to wonder (and perhaps ask) about the relationship. Furthermore, the very use of the phrase comes from a history of self-doubt and identity corruption on the grounds of needing to hide the nature of same-sex relationships. Indeed, I would suggest that among the LGBTQ community, use of this phrase is more layered and inconsistent – relying more heavily on the depth of the relationship between the A/C or X/Z conversants – than in the above observations.

  4. Yeah, the qualified additional tag (from school, new, etc.) seems to expound history rather than compound tenuous affection.

    And thanks for the LGBTQ insight: I wonder, then, if the generally fluid and various orientations would push my (relatively facile) "my friend" label into the realm of individual experience.

    What, for example, are the implications for a man who dates transgender women? or who dates men who identify as women but have no wish for sexual reassignment surgery? or who dates exclusively women but identifies as a woman? It feels like there have to be allowances for personal instances, but then that would ruin my nice tidy heteronormative generalization : )

  5. I think your theories hold for individuals that have a direct interest in the person they are introducing. I tend to drop "my friend" altogether in introducing people. I am not signaling a disinterest, but I avoid using the term because if my relationship with C is one where I would consider them a friend (and hence worthy of knowing my social network of friends), they would also have at some point heard of person B. Now I do use colleague quite a bit when I introduce people despite friendship status mainly because introductions would be in academic setitng. I am extremely fascinated by the use of "partner" though.

  6. Desrae:

    Yes, "colleague" in academia is nearly a status marker: "My colleague M" is going to introduce me to "Professor N" as a colleague because it designates respect as an equal. And if the person introducing you is someone you admire, what a compliment (if they're introducing you to someone else you admire, all the better).

    "Partner" reminds me of the scene in American Beauty when the gay neighbors introduce themselves as partners, and the father (Mr. Fitz) thinks they're trying to sell something.

  7. Listen. I got into Humanities to avoid algebra.

    In all seriousness, I think you have a generally good point. I wonder if this changes as we get older? Or move into long-term, committed relationships?

    I do think this is a sign of how jacked-up our sexuality is in this culture.

  8. JR: Precisely. So many variables. Where are the constants?