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April 24, 2006

Handling friendship problems is a matter of geography

BY MICHAEL JACKMANLately several of my friendships, for various reasons, are in jeopardy. I’m building up anger and frustration with people I’ve known and been happy with for about six years. But now stuff has happened, words have been exchanged, and my feelings are hurt.None of my approaches to relationship problems have ever worked, including my most recent one, ignoring them. This method is actually a cultural compromise between the North, the South and the Midwest.Let me explain. I was raised in New York City, where the culture is to be blunt and direct. There I learned to express every feeling I had, bluntly and directly. Those to whom I was expressing my feelings replied bluntly and directly. Then we beat the crap out of each other. Then we felt better. But this method, although it relieved the mind, was hard on the body.In my late 20s I moved to Nashville, and I had to learn Southern culture. People did not appreciate the blunt, direct approach. If you tried it, they would smile and say something nice. And you would feel like a jerk. Then everyone else would have dinner parties and not invite you. If you asked directly and bluntly why not, they would smile and say something nice about the oversight. This would go on indefinitely.It took me years to figure out the Southern way. Instead of talking to the person who hurt your feelings, you complained directly and bluntly to everyone else. They would smile and agree that the other person was a jerk. Meanwhile, the other person would complain about you to the same people, who would then smile and agree that you were a jerk. Then you’d all go to dinner parties and be nice to each other.You’d feel better. The other person would feel better. Everyone who got to share the juicy gossip would feel better. And so, no one said anything directly to anyone, but somehow everyone in the city of Nashville felt better.Except for one problem.Eventually both of you would hear through the grapevine all the awful things the other person was saying about you. That’s why in the South you often see, usually in a bar, two people suddenly charge each other screaming and then beat the crap out of each other. So like the Northern method, the Southern technique also relieved the mind, but it was hard on the body.After moving to Louisville, I tried what might be called the Midwestern technique. I diffused the situation by mentioning the problem indirectly, in ways so vague it actually seemed like a change of subject. Then we would disagree about this fake subject, which eventually became another relationship issue on top of the first one. As a side benefit, I developed headaches and gas. This method was equally hard on the mind and the body.Since no geographic technique was working, I decided a couple of years ago that the best way to handle friendship problems was to completely ignore them. I call this the Buddhist technique, because the method actually has some validity in Buddhist philosophy, which claims that all life is an illusion. I figure that, by illusion Buddha must not only have meant problems but in fact the friendships themselves. So why bother getting upset? But this technique hasn’t worked either, because now I’m walking around wanting to beat the crap out of some illusions.I have one more idea, what I’ve dubbed the Internet technique: I’m drafting blunt and honest e-mails to all my wayward friends. But I’m not sending them. I figure I’ll wait until I get the wording just right, and by then the problem will have gone away. Or if things don’t get better, then by “accident” I’ll click the Send button and get everything out in the open. But as a precaution, I’m beginning every e-mail with the following line:“Dear Friend: My name is Mr. Moses Mukhenze. I seek your help in recovering $18 million in unclaimed bank accounts in Lagos, Nigeria.”That way, if my honesty causes too many problems, I can always claim the e-mail was just SPAM. I have high hopes for this method. Contact the writer at