About four years ago I inherited a new batch of friends from my girlfriend. That's what happens when you start dating someone; it's life's way of filling in gaps without asking if there are gaps to be filled. "But I already have plenty of friends," I said to life. To which life shrugged its shoulders, as if saying, "Look, man -- I'm just doing my job. You figure it out." And then I was left with a box of preowned friends in my living room, no instructions.
Thus began my journey tumbling through the tangled mass of preexisting relationships. Long, complicated histories filled with laughs and tears, drama and silliness -- and all of it experienced as the stranger who asks a group of partying friends packed in a hot tub if there's room for one more.
Fully assimilating is a long-term project that may never have an endpoint. There's a lot of rocky land to traverse, and it all begins with ...
#5. Learning To Speak Their Language
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My girlfriend's friends aren't forest creatures who speak in a series of clicks and whistles. They're English-speaking humans, and none of them have a deep, mystical bond with trees. Though there are two vegetarians, so close enough. At first, talking to them was more about listening than speaking. One of the big things that separates different cliques is cultural reference points, which, as I wrote about here, are a language unto themselves. If I say, "I am the one who knocks!" to someone who's never seen Breaking Bad, they'll assume I chose a weird way to open up discussion about my career as a pizza-delivery guy. So the first step was shutting up and soaking in who they are through their collective likes and dislikes.
From there, it became a matter of hoping I'm familiar with whatever these people are into so we can have some common ground. If I can't connect with anything, I'm potentially looking at a lifetime of shitty barbecues. If it turns out they're super into dog-fighting, I'm going to have to find a way to deal with that, and that sucks very much.
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Aerial dog-fighting. Did I forget to mention they're World War II fighter pilots?
Thankfully for me, her friends do not place bets on canine survival odds at their local bloody pit lined with cinder blocks. They enjoy things I like and know how to talk about. Arrested Development? I speak Arrested Development fluently. Overspending during Steam sales? I can speak that in all of its regional dialects. Wildly complicated European board games? Don't speak a word of it, but I'm open.
But then there was something I couldn't connect with: hummus. There was a lot of hummus.
#4. Discovering Their "Things"
Every clique of friends has a list of "things" they identify themselves with. Maybe you and your friends' list of things includes dry humor and comic books, or maybe it's excessive drinking followed by groveling apologies, or maybe it's rampant, unapologetic racism. This can also be thought of as a collective quirk, a particular thing this new group of people seems to be all about. The first I noticed with this new group was hummus. I had never known people for whom hummus was a thing to get hard over. Then I inherited friends who so ferociously ate the stuff at gatherings that my life became a reality show sponsored by Sabra.
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"I'll tell ya, when life gets me down and I want a creamy pick-me-up, I dip pita chips in paste."
I had never thought much of the khaki-colored chickpea mush. I always felt like it was better suited as an industrial adhesive. But I had to learn to accept this as an official "thing" of theirs. "Things" are a shortcut into good graces. They can just as easily be a sink hole to Hell. Their "things" are the greatest hits of who they are. Don't like one? That's a huge chunk of their long-standing group dynamic you recoil from like it's a pungent fart.
"No! Please! No more Star Trek references!"
Worse comes to worst, fake it 'til you make it. But you're with your boyfriend or girlfriend because you've got a shit-ton in common; for the most part their friends will be in possession of at least a few nuggets off that ton of shit.
This good intention has a downside. The more I discovered about her friends, the more I couldn't resist the temptation to start ...
#3. Comparing And Contrasting Our Cliques
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It wasn't until I gained dual citizenship in two circles of friends that I realized my friends, the ones I've had for years, are assholes. That's the way we like it. We're not gift-givers. We're not even ones to acknowledge each other's birthdays beyond a belated happy birthday text a few days later. My friendships burn low but far, like an ion thruster.
"Friendship Thrusters, Engage!"
Being in that friend-scape for so long, I assumed every group of friends was that way. My circle and our antics became my definition of how friendships are and should be. We are a stereotypical group of men: Empathy and sentimentality toward each other is inversely proportional to our high levels of cynicism and sarcasm. We've come to view that as a trademark of our crew. If we had a secret handshake that perfectly expressed who we are, it would be a series of mumbles and stern middle fingers. That's how I assumed everyone else was.
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Her friends are generous. They're thoughtful. They buy each other gifts, even when the gift-receiver doesn't have a birthday in sight for months. They're really nice people. It's kind of creepy, actually -- like they have a hidden agenda I'll discover soon after they try to murder me in a way that makes it look like a suicide. Even still, it's inescapable: What they have in kindness they lack in history with me. I'd get lost in the shuffle of their conversations, buried beneath piles of nostalgia. I had to try ...