It’s about 25 minutes before we’re supposed to meet for coffee and my phone pings. It’s my friend Jane. "Sorry, something’s come up. Do you mind if we take a raincheck?" In films (and articles...) this sort of behaviour elicits eye-rolls. If this were a rom-com scenario Jane would be a massive mess, with commitment issues and bed hair, and she’d definitely be sleeping with your husband.
However, Jane is me. I am Jane. We know we’re as busy as each other and we know that if either of us needs to cancel a date at short notice, it’s completely fine.
We’re told that we should drop everything for our friends. A flaky friend is a bad friend, a flaky friend cares about nobody but herself. But Jane and I have a low-maintenance relationship and it suits us both just fine. She’s not the only one though. I have a raft of delightful, busy, chaotic and unreliable pals and I don’t care a jot. One friend dropped out of a weekend away the night before we were due to leave. Those of us remaining shrugged and carried on regardless. One pal and I have already changed plans four times this week and it’s fine. Another friend even told me about her birthday meal after the event, saying: "I’d have genuinely loved you to come but I knew you’d be really busy so I didn’t even bother inviting you." Some would have been offended but I knew she really didn’t mind and neither did I.
A different mate called two of us ON his birthday on the off-chance we were free and we all met spontaneously for lunch. It was marvellous. He knew his market and he pitched accordingly.
Contrast this with Sarah (name has been changed to protect the needy), who I met a few years ago and who, ever since, has tried to inveigle her way into all our social events. She’s more than welcome, of course, and I always invite her, but the stress involved with her needing to control and plan everything down to the last letter works like kryptonite on me, and it's meant I am loath to get too involved in our friendship.
Maybe I’m painting myself as a bad friend. I don’t think I am...particularly. Those closest to me would say I am caring and considerate and they enjoy spending time with me. I remember birthdays (most of the time), I pay for dinner and I always turn up on time – if I haven’t cancelled.
Unlike romantic relationships, we don't have conversations about friendship boundaries.
Psychologist Karen Kwong says these "low-stakes friendships" are useful: "This kind of friendship is an easygoing, light-hearted one which usually means it's free of stress and pressure, packed full of fun, companionship and convenience. They require little planning and it means you have someone to hang out with for the art exhibition and yet you don't have to hear about how her mother is ill and how sad she is about that." Callous? "Not really," says Kwong, "sometimes you just don't need to hear about something so intense for an evening out."
Superficial friendships can provide all manner of benefits, says Kwong: "You might do different things together and get new perspectives because you don't have a 'habit' with this person, you get to be a free and easygoing person who can forget about your problems for the night and that person doesn't have a preconceived idea of who you are and what you think, you have a light-hearted, fun and easy companion without baggage."
By definition, a low-risk friendship means that very little is required of you. The high-stakes ones can entail arguments, anger, tears, heartbreak. I hear stories of friendships that have ended because one party failed to drop everything and hotfoot it hundreds of kilometres to attend a christening, friendships that have dissolved because one person didn’t send a Christmas card for three years in a row (actually, that could have been me). Who needs this sort of pressure in a friendship? However, Kwong argues, "the beauty of those high-stakes friendships can also be knowing you have that 'person' who will be with you through the highs and lows of life."
Kwong (and I) would argue that flaky friends are just as valid as high-stakes friends. However, she adds, "it is worth knowing they are flaky. So if you are inviting someone to something and you know it's vital they turn up on time, or at all, then perhaps a flaky friend isn't the best one to invite. However, if the event is some casual group drinks, then invite the flaky friend who is usually up for a laugh and adds a different dynamic to the event."
I'm not saying that there aren't friends for whom I would drop everything, and of course I have some pals who I'm closer to than others, but I certainly place as much value on both types of friend. Indeed, one of the friends I love most in the world is someone whom I haven't even spoken to for weeks. However, I know that when we do catch up, it will be high quality.
Unlike romantic relationships, we don’t have conversations about friendship boundaries, Kwong points out. "Instead, you will have to use social cues and behaviours to understand them." Essentially, she says, "anything that sits uncomfortably with you, you know that you are not at the same level friendship-wise. And it's now that you need to have a chat about it to ensure that you get what you need from that friendship."
I think that’s the crux of it for me. Don’t recruit me for the role of lifelong companion who’ll attend your baby’s six-month birthday celebration or drop everything to fly to Rhodes for your second wedding. See me as someone who’ll come for dinner occasionally or happily go to a gig but might run a bloody mile when you say, "Let’s make sure we do this once a month!"
"It's easy to think everyone is wonderful and your new BFF at the start of a shiny new friendship," says Kwong. "However, like most things that are worthwhile in life, you will find that different people have different expectations for friendships. These friends might be there for you when it comes to going to the latest concert but if you're having a bad day, they won't just drop everything and leave the concert with you to hear about your troubles. Or they might listen but help you in a way that you don't need." You know what? I’m fine with that.