By now the scenario is familiar, but at the time it was unprecedented: House Republicans, having recently won a majority in the midterm elections, threatened to force the United States to default on its debt unless a Democratic president acceded to their demands.
The year was 1995, and I was serving as secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton. Raising the debt limit to avoid default, which had previously been a perfunctory matter, was now a catalyst for crisis. For months, Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened to plunge the country into default unless Clinton signed the House Republicans’ budget bill.
Having come from the financial industry, and being relatively new to Washington, I remember being surprised. I knew the legislative process was messy, and that hostage-taking was frequently part of it. Still, the notion that the government of the United States would, for political reasons, not meet its financial obligations seemed outside the realm of possibility.
Although Gingrich eventually backed down, in many ways the most jarring surprises were still to come. President Joe Biden is now the third straight Democratic chief executive to have faced post-midterm debt-ceiling demands. Over the past 30 years, debt-limit crises, once practically unthinkable, have become a recurring feature of American life.
That America did not default on its debt, and that the short-term danger has passed, is cause for great relief. But over the longer term, the threat of regular debt-ceiling brinkmanship is a crisis unto itself. Requiring a vote to raise the debt limit serves no valuable purpose, and it creates a wide range of economic and geopolitical risks. Congress must pass legislation to eliminate the need to vote on the debt limit altogether.
I say this as someone who has long been worried about the size and sustainability of our national debt measured as a percentage of our GDP. I’m proud to have been part of an administration that balanced the federal budget and produced the first government surplus in nearly three decades. In recent years, I’ve grown more and more concerned about the unsustainable trajectory of our fiscal situation, and I’ve argued that view even at times when it was unpopular with many of my fellow Democrats. But running a risk, however small, that the United States defaults on its debts is no way to get our fiscal house in order.
Nor is the risk of default as low as many on Wall Street and in Washington seem to think. It was always unlikely that this latest display of brinkmanship would lead to default, and it is also unlikely that the next one will. But unlikely is not the same thing as impossible. Moreover, even if the risk from each individual debt-limit crisis does remain low, the cumulative risk of default over repeated crises is likely to be far higher.
If such a default were to occur, it’s highly probable the damage would be widespread and immense. There would be tremendous disruption in the market for Treasury bills, and because T-bills are used as collateral around the world, this could easily lead to crises in other markets as well. Investors might see a run on money-market funds. Equity markets could suffer severe losses. Historically, Treasury sets what’s always been viewed as a risk-free rate, with other rates—for car loans, mortgages, and small-business loans, to name just a few examples—tied to that. If T-bills were no longer considered risk-free, those other borrowing costs could go up, raising expenses for families across America. America’s broader geopolitical credibility—not just on matters of its debt, but on an enormous set of issues—could be severely diminished by any default.
These self-inflicted harms would hurt American families in the short term. But by creating a slowdown in economic growth, they would also lead to less tax revenue collected by our federal government over time. This would mean larger debts and a smaller GDP, and thus a higher debt-to-GDP ratio. In other words, debt-limit hostage-taking in the name of fiscal responsibility could actually make our fiscal outlook meaningfully worse.
Even if debt-limit crises never lead to an actual default, the mere specter of default can be enough to cause real harm. I’ve spent most of my career making decisions that involve financial issues, and I can’t imagine investing in a firm that regularly debates whether or not to pay its debts. Thus far, the markets have yet to apply that logic to the United States Treasury. But in my experience, markets don’t always incorporate risks steadily and gradually. Sometimes, they ignore something until they don’t. If the markets eventually decide that the risk of default, however slight, is meaningful, it will drive up borrowing costs for the federal government. This will either increase our deficits or force the government to make unnecessary cuts in order to redirect funds toward higher payments on interest.
Simply put, debt-limit brinkmanship carries with it extraordinary risks, nearly all of which would, if they came to pass, harm our economy in the short term and worsen our fiscal outlook over the long term. Threatening default is many things—but fiscally responsible is not one of them.
Such extreme tactics are not necessary. Congress can make decisions regarding taxation and spending through the budget process, just as it historically has done. In fact, significant deficit reduction can likely be achieved without significant harm to most Americans. This is because the deficits of more recent decades have been driven primarily by new tax cuts targeted overwhelmingly at the wealthiest Americans. By bringing upper-income tax rates, corporate tax rates, and capital-gains tax rates back in line with those of the 1990s; closing tax loopholes; decreasing Medicare costs through improvements to our health-care system without sacrificing the quality of patient care; and pursuing targeted spending cuts where appropriate, we could restore a sound fiscal trajectory without hurting the country’s overall economic growth or the typical American family’s economic well-being. None of this requires a process related to the debt limit.
I’ve now spent more than half a century thinking about markets and economic policy, and analyzing risk. For most of that time, I thought the debt ceiling was either irrelevant, because Congress would lift it as a routine matter, or that the risk it posed to our economy was too remote to be worth worrying about.
But faced with years of political dysfunction and decades of debt-ceiling crises, I’ve changed my view. The debt limit serves no useful purpose, and repeated threats not to raise it could lead to meaningful economic harm even if we don’t default, and immense harm if we do. Raising the debt limit, as lawmakers have finally done, is important but insufficient. Responsible lawmakers should aim to do something more ambitious, and with far more potential benefit to the American economy: eliminate the debt limit entirely.
What America just went through was not the first debt-ceiling crisis. But it can and should be the last.
On July 13, 1833, during a visit to the Cabinet of Natural History at the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, Ralph Waldo Emerson had an epiphany. Peering at the museum’s specimens—butterflies, hunks of amber and marble, carved seashells—he felt overwhelmed by the interconnectedness of nature, and humankind’s place within it.
The experience inspired him to write “The Uses of Natural History,” and to articulate a philosophy that put naturalism at the center of intellectual life in a technologically chaotic age—guiding him, along with the collective of writers and radical thinkers known as transcendentalists, to a new spiritual belief system. Through empirical observation of the natural world, Emerson believed, anyone could become “a definer and map-maker of the latitudes and longitudes of our condition”—finding agency, individuality, and wonder in a mechanized age.
America was crackling with invention in those years, and everything seemed to be speeding up as a result. Factories and sugar mills popped up like dandelions, steamships raced to and from American ports, locomotives tore across the land, the telegraph connected people as never before, and the first photograph was taken, forever altering humanity’s view of itself. The national mood was a mix of exuberance, anxiety, and dread.
The flash of vision Emerson experienced in Paris was not a rejection of change but a way of reimagining human potential as the world seemed to spin off its axis. Emerson’s reaction to the technological renaissance of the 19th century is worth revisiting as we contemplate the great technological revolution of our own century: the rise of artificial superintelligence.
Even before its recent leaps, artificial intelligence has for years roiled the informational seas in which we swim. Early disturbances arose from the ranking algorithms that have come to define the modern web—that is, the opaque code that tells Google which results to show you, and that organizes and personalizes your feeds on social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok by slurping up data about you as a way to assess what to spit back out.
Now imagine this same internet infrastructure but with programs that communicate with a veneer of authority on any subject, with the ability to generate sophisticated, original text, audio, and video, and the power to mimic individuals in a manner so convincing that people will not know what is real. These self-teaching AI models are being designed to become better at what they do with every single interaction. But they also sometimes hallucinate, and manipulate, and fabricate. And you cannot predict what they’ll do or why they’ll do it. If Google’s search engine is the modern-day Library of Alexandria, the new AI will be a mercurial prophet.
Generative artificial intelligence is advancing with unbelievable speed, and will be applied across nearly every discipline and industry. Tech giants—including Alphabet (which owns Google), Amazon, Meta (which owns Facebook), and Microsoft—are locked in a race to weave AI into existing products, such as maps, email, social platforms, and photo software.
The technocultural norms and habits that have seized us during the triple revolution of the internet, smartphones, and the social web are themselves in need of a thorough correction. Too many people have allowed these technologies to simply wash over them. We would be wise to rectify the errors of the recent past, but also to anticipate—and proactively shape—what the far more radical technology now emerging will mean for our lives, and how it will come to remake our civilization.
Corporations that stand to profit off this new technology are already memorizing the platitudes necessary to wave away the critics. They’ll use sunny jargon like “human augmentation” and “human-centered artificial intelligence.” But these terms are as shallow as they are abstract. What’s coming stands to dwarf every technological creation in living memory: the internet, the personal computer, the atom bomb. It may well be the most consequential technology in all of human history.
People are notoriously terrible at predicting the future, and often slow to recognize a revolution—even when it is already under way. But the span of time between when new technology emerges and when standards and norms are hardened is often short. The Wild West, in other words, only lasts for so long. Eventually, the railroads standardize time; incandescent bulbs beat out arc lamps; the dream of the open web dies.
The window for effecting change in the realm of AI is still open. Yet many of those who have worked longest to establish guardrails for this new technology are despairing that the window is nearly closed.
Generative AI, just like search engines, telephones, and locomotives before it, will allow us to do things with levels of efficiency so profound, it will seem like magic. We may see whole categories of labor, and in some cases entire industries, wiped away with startling speed. The utopians among us will view this revolution as an opportunity to outsource busywork to machines for the higher purpose of human self-actualization. This new magic could indeed create more time to be spent on matters more deserving of our attention—deeper quests for knowledge, faster routes to scientific discovery, extra time for leisure and with loved ones. It may also lead to widespread unemployment and the loss of professional confidence as a more competent AI looks over our shoulder.
Government officials, along with other well-intentioned leaders, are groping toward ethical principles for artificial intelligence—see, for example, the White House’s “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights.” (Despite the clunky title, the intention is for principles that will protect human rights, though the question of civil rights for machines will eventually arise.) These efforts are necessary but not enough to meet the moment.
We should know by now that neither the government’s understanding of new technologies nor self-regulation by tech behemoths can adequately keep pace with the speed of technological change or Silicon Valley’s capacity to seek profit and scale at the expense of societal and democratic health. What defines this next phase of human history must begin with the individual.
Just as the Industrial Revolution sparked transcendentalism in the U.S. and romanticism in Europe—both movements that challenged conformity and prioritized truth, nature, and individualism—today we need a cultural and philosophical revolution of our own. This new movement should prioritize humans above machines and reimagine human relationships with nature and with technology, while still advancing what this technology can do at its best. Artificial intelligence will, unquestionably, help us make miraculous, lifesaving discoveries. The danger lies in outsourcing our humanity to this technology without discipline, especially as it eclipses us in apperception. We need a human renaissance in the age of intelligent machines.
In the face of world-altering invention, with the power of today’s tech barons so concentrated, it can seem as though ordinary people have no hope of influencing the machines that will soon be cognitively superior to us all. But there is tremendous power in defining ideals, even if they ultimately remain out of reach. Considering all that is at stake, we have to at least try.
Transparency should be a core tenet in the new human exchange of ideas—people ought to disclose whenever an artificial intelligence is present or has been used in communication. This ground rule could prompt discipline in creating more-human (and human-only) spaces, as well as a less anonymous web. Any journalist can tell you that anonymity should be used only as a last resort and in rare scenarios for the public good. We would benefit from cultural norms that expect people to assert not just their opinions but their actual names too.
Now is the time, as well, to recommit to making deeper connections with other people. Live videochat can collapse time and distance, but such technologies are a poor substitute for face-to-face communication, especially in settings where creative collaboration or learning is paramount. The pandemic made this painfully clear. Relationships cannot and should not be sustained in the digital realm alone, especially as AI further erodes our understanding of what is real. Tapping a “Like” button is not friendship; it’s a data point. And a conversation with an artificial intelligence is one-sided—an illusion of connection.
Someday soon, a child may not have just one AI “friend,” but more AI friends than human ones. These companions will not only be built to surveil the humans who use them; they will be tied inexorably to commerce—meaning that they will be designed to encourage engagement and profit. Such incentives warp what relationships ought to be.
Writers of fiction—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Rod Serling, José Saramago—have for generations warned of doppelgängers that might sap our humanity by stealing a person’s likeness. Our new world is a wormhole to that uncanny valley.
Whereas the first algorithmic revolution involved using people’s personal data to reorder the world for them, the next will involve our personal data being used not just to splinter our shared sense of reality, but to invent synthetic replicas. The profit-minded music-studio exec will thrill to the notion of an AI-generated voice with AI-generated songs, not attached to a human with intellectual-property rights. Artists, writers, and musicians should anticipate widespread impostor efforts and fight against them. So should all of us. One computer scientist recently told me she’s planning to create a secret code word that only she and her elderly parents know, so that if they ever hear her voice on the other end of the phone pleading for help or money, they’ll know whether it’s been generated by an AI trained on her publicly available lectures to sound exactly like her and scam them.
Today’s elementary-school children are already learning not to trust that anything they see or hear through a screen is real. But they deserve a modern technological and informational environment built on Enlightenment values: reason, human autonomy, and the respectful exchange of ideas. Not everything should be recorded or shared; there is individual freedom in embracing ephemerality. More human interactions should take place only between the people involved; privacy is key to preserving our humanity.
Finally, a more existential consideration requires our attention, and that is the degree to which the pursuit of knowledge orients us inward or outward. The artificial intelligence of the near future will supercharge our empirical abilities, but it may also dampen our curiosity. We are at risk of becoming so enamored of the synthetic worlds that we create—all data sets, duplicates, and feedback loops—that we cease to peer into the unknown with any degree of true wonder or originality.
We should trust human ingenuity and creative intuition, and resist overreliance on tools that dull the wisdom of our own aesthetics and intellect. Emerson once wrote that Isaac Newton “used the same wit to weigh the moon that he used to buckle his shoes.” Newton, I’ll point out, also used that wit to invent a reflecting telescope, the beginnings of a powerful technology that has allowed humankind to squint at the origins of the universe. But the spirit of Emerson’s idea remains crucial: Observing the world, taking it in using our senses, is an essential exercise on the path to knowledge. We can and should layer on technological tools that will aid us in this endeavor, but never at the expense of seeing, feeling, and ultimately knowing for ourselves.
A future in which overconfident machines seem to hold the answers to all of life’s cosmic questions is not only dangerously misguided, but takes away that which makes us human. In an age of anger, and snap reactions, and seemingly all-knowing AI, we should put more emphasis on contemplation as a way of being. We should embrace an unfinished state of thinking, the constant work of challenging our preconceived notions, seeking out those with whom we disagree, and sometimes still not knowing. We are mortal beings, driven to know more than we ever will or ever can.
The passage of time has the capacity to erase human knowledge: Whole languages disappear; explorers lose their feel for crossing the oceans by gazing at the stars. Technology continually reshapes our intellectual capacities. What remains is the fact that we are on this planet to seek knowledge, truth, and beauty—and that we only get so much time to do it.
As a small child in Concord, Massachusetts, I could see Emerson’s home from my bedroom window. Recently, I went back for a visit. Emerson’s house has always captured my imagination. He lived there for 47 years until his death, in 1882. Today, it is maintained by his descendants and a small staff dedicated to his legacy. The house is some 200 years old, and shows its age in creaks and stains. But it also possesses a quality that is extraordinarily rare for a structure of such historic importance: 141 years after his death, Emerson’s house still feels like his. His books are on the shelves. One of his hats hangs on a hook by the door. The original William Morris wallpaper is bright green in the carriage entryway. A rendering of Francesco Salviati’s The Three Fates, holding the thread of destiny, stands watch over the mantel in his study. This is the room in which Emerson wrote Nature. The table where he sat to write it is still there, next to the fireplace.
Standing in Emerson’s study, I thought about how no technology is as good as going to the place, whatever the destination. No book, no photograph, no television broadcast, no tweet, no meme, no augmented reality, no hologram, no AI-generated blueprint or fever dream can replace what we as humans experience. This is why you make the trip, you cross the ocean, you watch the sunset, you hear the crickets, you notice the phase of the moon. It is why you touch the arm of the person beside you as you laugh. And it is why you stand in awe at the Jardin des Plantes, floored by the universe as it reveals its hidden code to you.
This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “In Defense of Humanity.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
The past few months have brought despair to millions of Arabs as they’ve watched the rapid and seemingly definitive restoration of an old, dictatorial order throughout a region that was not long ago full of promise. The end of the Arab Spring has been forecast many times already. Now the last stubborn buds have been crushed.
Tunisia, the country that started the wave of democratic uprisings in December 2010, served for more than a decade as a model for other states contemplating the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now it’s sliding back toward autocracy, with President Kais Saied, elected in 2019, appearing to outdo the country’s previous dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in repression. Since assuming office, Saied has imposed an emergency regime, suspended Parliament, and rewritten the country’s constitution. In recent months, he’s taken to cracking down on any whiff of criticism of his rule by arresting journalists and union and political leaders.
Sudan renewed hopes for a democratic wave when a year-long movement of protest, led mostly by women, brought an end to the two-decades-long dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. A 22-year-old woman named Alaa Salah, standing atop a car, dressed in white with large gold earrings and leading men in a chant about freedom, became the image of that democratic revolution. But last month, two of the generals who helped remove Bashir went to war against each other in an all-out battle for control of Khartoum. The conflict has already killed more than 500 people and led tens of thousands to flee the capital, with no end in sight.
Then there is Syria, whose revolution was the bloodiest of them all. For 10 years, world leaders shunned President Bashar al-Assad for his ruthless repression of what began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 and became a bloodbath in which 500,000 Syrians were killed, an estimated 90 percent of them by Assad’s regime and its allies, Iran and Russia. Assad, who also used chemical weapons against his people, has now come in from the cold, at least in the Arab world. His neighbors have turned to him for help resolving a host of problems that he himself created, such as huge outflows of refugees and a lucrative trade in a highly addictive synthetic amphetamine called captagon, produced in Syria under the control of the Assad family.
Successive American administrations have treated the Middle East as a lost cause, a place to fix by force or to ignore. Former President Barack Obama described strife in the region as “rooted in conflict dating back millennia,” suggesting that it was an inevitable and eternal condition. Such an approach risks blinding Washington to the region’s place in the bigger global story that the current U.S. president, Joe Biden, likes to speak of as a worldwide contest between democratic and autocratic forces. In the Middle East, the autocratic side is making a strong comeback. What happens there will have ramifications for the West, whether in the war in Ukraine or the standoff with Iran.
The sight of Assad walking the red carpet to the Arab League meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last month was particularly troubling—not only because he should instead be standing trial at an international tribunal but also because of what this moment signaled beyond Syria’s borders. The Syrian dictator is still standing in large part because of Vladimir Putin’s 2015 military intervention in Syria to shore up the regime. At the time, Washington reacted with relative indifference, if not satisfaction: Syria was going to be someone else’s problem. Russia might even sink into a quagmire there. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself recently highlighted this view as a gross miscalculation by the West.
“The people of Syria received no adequate international protection, and this gave the Kremlin and its accomplices a sense of impunity,” Zelensky said in a speech this March. “Russian bombs were destroying Syrian cities in the same way as they are our Ukrainian cities. It is in this impunity that a significant part of the Kremlin’s current aggressiveness lies.”
Arab officials who have met Assad recently say he has shown neither remorse nor any willingness to compromise. He feels vindicated, and his sense of victory will give comfort to Russia and to Iran, which is assisting Putin with drones and other military support in his war against Ukraine. So far, the Biden administration has adopted a mostly laissez-faire attitude to Assad’s return to the Arab fold.
Western countries share the blame for the failures in Syria, Sudan, and Tunisia. They have repeatedly made shortsighted policy choices that have contributed to the region’s return to authoritarianism and made it a more receptive place for both human-rights abusers and the West’s strategic adversaries. In Sudan, the U.S. and other countries focused their efforts on mediating between the two warring generals, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. As the former State Department official Jeffrey Feltman wrote in a scathing opinion piece in TheWashington Post: “We reflexively appeased and accommodated the two warlords. We considered ourselves pragmatic. Hindsight suggests wishful thinking to be a more accurate description.”
The same could be said of Washington’s dealings with other strongmen in the region, including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (who has reportedly explored the possibility of supplying Russia with military hardware), or of the European Union’s dealings with Saied in Tunisia. European leaders tiptoed around Saied, counting on him to help stem the flow of refugees from Africa to Europe. Instead, he has pushed more people to flee across the Mediterranean with his far-right, xenophobic positions on migrants and Africans, even while his economic policies are leading Tunisia into crisis.
The stability such leaders provide has always been illusory and temporary. The eruption of mass protests around the Middle East in 2011, deposing such friends of the West as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, proved as much: The oppression required to keep the lid on disaffected populations was unsustainable then and remains so today. In Egypt, el-Sisi’s reckless spending on fanciful megalomaniac cities in the desert and other vanity projects, combined with corruption and inefficiency, have brought the country close to default. Government officials glibly advise Egyptian people to eat chicken feet if they can’t afford chicken, while the regime holds some 60,000 political detainees in prison. Even in the Gulf, which is enjoying an oil boom, discontent can’t be silenced forever: Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia has come down but still sits just below 30 percent, and unemployment in the UAE has also become a major concern.
So what now for the aspirations of millions of Arabs, who once demanded the fall of their regimes? Even just two years ago, they still had some momentum—in Sudan, but also in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, where a new cohort of activists applied the lessons of 2011 and got organized to run for elections. Their efforts amounted to little or were violently quashed, leaving no clear path forward for a renewed push for democracy in the Arab world.
Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian diplomat and a longtime champion of pluralism and reform in the region, refuses to accept that the journey has come to an end. “You cannot judge the process by the first or second wave of failure,” he told me.
Muasher likened the Arab revolutions to other revolutions, including the French one of 1789, which went through several stages: the restoration of the monarchy, more revolution, a first unstable version of a parliamentary republic, and the ultimate establishment of the Fourth Republic after World War II. The interregnum may be messy in the contemporary Middle East, Muasher suggests, but transformation will not take a century in these rapidly changing societies: “The old Arab order that relies solely on brute force is dead, and the riches from the oil surge are a short-term remedy.” Most important, he says, people are no longer afraid.
In Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s largest political party, and one of the region’s most influential and progressive thinkers on political Islam, has also been taking the long view. He spent years in prison in Tunis during the 1980s, followed by decades in exile in the United Kingdom. After the 2011 revolution, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia and entered politics. In 2016, he wrote a landmark essay in Foreign Affairs in which he argued that democracy was the best, or the least bad, system available and was compatible with Islam. He urged fellow Muslims to reject the term Islamist and adopt Muslim democrat instead.
At the end of April, Ghannouchi was arrested on trumped-up charges related to corruption and terrorism. In May, he was sentenced to a year in prison.
“The cure for failed democracy is more democracy,” Ghannouchi told The New Yorker in 2013, when hundreds of people were killed for protesting a coup in Egypt. In a video recorded just before his arrest, he urged patience: “Trust in yourselves, trust in God, trust the principles of your revolution; democracy is not a passing thing in Tunis, it is a transformation that will also bring light to the rest of the Arab world.”
The demands of the Arab Spring are also not a passing thing. Millions of young people across the Middle East still yearn for justice, dignity, the rule of law, good governance, and jobs. When Washington sounds the themes of democratic struggle against autocratic forces around the globe while mostly ignoring the abuses in the region, not only do its words sound hollow but the contradiction undermines the whole effort. No one wants a return to the bombastic freedom agenda of the George W. Bush administration, but the Biden administration should rethink how the Middle East fits into the broader struggle to counter authoritarianism. The Middle East’s new autocratic order may seem convenient for the U.S. right now, but the people’s silence is only temporary.
Millions of people first discovered the pleasures of piecing together a mystery through series such as Nancy Drew and The Mysterious Benedict Society; my touchpoint was Something Queer Is Going On, by Elizabeth Levy, later rebranded as The Fletcher Mysteries. I loved those chapter books, where a pair of best friends and their sweet, lazy basset hound, Fletcher, solved cases. As an adult, I still welcome riddles in my reading life, although I’ve broadened the way I think about them. I enjoy a good whodunit, but I’ve come to deeply appreciate fiction that doesn’t present a straightforward resolution to the puzzle that’s been introduced.
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to describe writing like this. Some titles are like M. C. Escher’s impossible drawings, driving you to scratch your head, look closer, and try to make sense of how it all coheres. Others are reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan films (the good ones), where at the very end you begin questioning everything that came before. Such books sometimes provide answers of a kind, or leave you to ruminate on your own. The six below represent an eclectic mix of various styles and moods, but any one of them will be exactly right if you want a brainteaser.
A Pale View of Hills, the Nobel laureate’s debut novel, is narrated by Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in the English countryside. The story begins in the aftermath of the death by suicide of her eldest daughter, Keiko. But Etsuko doesn’t want to dwell on Keiko—or so she tells us. Instead, she’s interested in reliving her memories of Nagasaki directly after World War II. She had been pregnant—presumably with Keiko—and living with her husband in a hastily erected apartment block when she met Sachiko, a young mother living in a small cottage with her own daughter, Mariko. The two women’s developing friendship has an undercurrent of tension; Etsuko quietly disapproves of Sachiko’s parenting—Mariko runs off occasionally, disobeys her mother, and is obsessed with a woman who doesn’t appear to be real—and Sachiko coldly defends herself from the unspoken criticism. As the novel unfolds, Etsuko’s reliability as a narrator becomes wobbly. What isn’t she telling us? What is she editing into or out of her own history? Is she aware that she’s doing it? Near the end, a single pronoun slip—a we rather than a you—instantaneously upends Etsuko’s entire account.
Don’t let this volume’s slimness fool you into thinking it’s insubstantial. Calvino’s masterpiece has multiple layers of riddles: Its chapters are arranged in mathematical precision according to the Fibonacci sequence, it involves real historical figures but isn’t realistic, and the titular cities are full of impossibilities. The narrative is structured as a continuous conversation between the traveling merchant Marco Polo and the ruler Kublai Khan, interspersed with 55 brief chapters—many shorter than one page, none longer than several. These are Marco Polo’s descriptions of a variety of places that are nominally part of the Khan’s empire. Each city is mysterious, and many are nonsensical. Ersilia, for instance, is repeatedly abandoned by its inhabitants and built elsewhere; Eusapia’s denizens have constructed an exact copy of their city underground to which they bring their mummified dead so that they can eternally pursue the pleasures they enjoyed in life; Isidora appears when a weary traveler yearns for a city, and fulfills dreams that belong to the traveler’s younger self rather than to who he is now. Whether the places exist literally or only metaphorically, whether Kublai Khan and Marco Polo are actually conversing—well, that’s up to you to decide.
Rubik’s Cubes, with their colorful squares and simple design, are nevertheless notoriously difficult to solve. So, too, is Tan’s debut, which begins with a random tragedy: One night, Elena Rubik, a young adult who has recently moved out of her parents’ home and is living with roommates, gets hit by a car and dies. Even in death, Elena’s presence is felt via her social-media profiles, her fan fiction, and the other detritus of her online life—and her existence reverberates across Rubik’s interconnected stories. These all take place within the same universe, which is basically ours except that the behemoths of Apple, Google, and Amazon are all replaced by Seed, a tech corporation with brilliant guerrilla-marketing schemes and questionable motives. Seed features heavily within the plot; so do characters that reappear, sometimes changing drastically, as well as pop-culture elements and fandoms unique to the Rubik world. The sections seem disconnected and random at first, but as you begin to put together the pieces, you’ll find a dark aura rippling through the book.
The narrator in Kavan’s most well-known novel, Ice, initially reads as candid and trustworthy. Through his eyes, we learn that the Earth is on the brink of ecological disaster—a spreading freeze seems like it might plunge the planet into a new ice age and eradicate humanity. As the ice spreads, the protagonist obsessively follows the trail of a girl he once knew. But how is he able to travel as he does amid the panic, the closing borders, and the impending collapse of society? Kavan allows only glimmers of possible explanation: Perhaps he’s working for a particular government, or maybe he’s connected to whoever is organizing the coming postapocalyptic world order. Ambiguities abound—who is this girl, and who is she to the narrator? He seems to be able to access her mind, to feel her terror and her pain—but how? The unconventional point-of-view shifts and the increasing creepiness of the narrator’s desire for the girl lead to many interpretations of the book’s plot, characters, and even its title, making Ice perfect to discuss with friends.
Oreo is a wonderfully irreverent story that plays fast and loose with the hero’s journey. Tragically, it’s the only novel Fran Ross ever published. Christine Clark, a 16-year-old known as Oreo (derived from what her grandmother calls her, Oriole, but purposely recalling the racialized insult) is on a quest to find her father, a white Jewish man who left the family when she was young. Oreo’s mother, who is Black, is a musician, on the road much of the time, so Oreo has been raised by her maternal grandmother and educated by a host of eccentric tutors. A child prodigy who invented her own martial art, among other accomplishments, Oreo is more than ready when her mom gives her a list of clues meant to help track down her dad. With little fanfare, she heads to New York City, echoing Theseus from Greek mythology. Oreo plays with form; its labyrinthine structure is another classical allusion, and it’s full of menus, lists, and math equations (though you don’t need to understand them to follow the plot) that both contribute to and digress from the main narrative. If you aren’t up on your myths, Ross helpfully includes back matter titled “A Key for Speed Readers, Nonclassicists, Etc.”
Thomas’s PopCo features a delightfully quirky narrator, Alice, who works for the titular, massive international toy company, noted as being third in size only to Mattel and Hasbro. As part of the ideation-and-design team, she is in the middle of creating several activity kits for children when she has to put the work on hold in order to attend a corporate retreat at a country estate. When she’s invited to stay longer to crack the toy industry’s biggest challenge—how to get teenage girls to buy its products—she accepts. Thomas’s first books were murder mysteries, and this novel has some classic hallmarks of the genre: a secluded estate, hidden treasure, anonymous messages sent in code. But Thomas subverts expectations, much as Alice does, and the plot eschews the obvious questions about how to sell things, or what toys are even for, in favor of answering different ones about childhood, corporate greed, and conformity. As a bonus, Thomas has placed a tongue-in-cheek crossword in the back, along with some essential cryptanalysis tools, in case readers want to practice what they’ve learned from Alice’s educational asides.
The terms of friendship are both voluntary and vague—yet people often find themselves disappointed by unmet expectations. In this episode of How to Talk to People, we explore how to have the difficult conversations that can make our friendships richer and how to set expectations in a relationship defined by choice.
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Julie Beck. Editing by Jocelyn Frank and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Rob Smierciak. Special thanks to A.C. Valdez. The managing editor of How to Talk to People is Andrea Valdez.
Be friends with How to Talk to People. Write to us at email@example.com. To support this podcast, and get unlimited access to all of The Atlantic’s journalism, become a subscriber.
Music by Alexandra Woodward (“A Little Tip”), Arthur Benson (“Charmed Encounter,” “She Is Whimsical,” “Organized Chaos”), Bomull (“Latte”), and Tellsonic (“The Whistle Funk”).
Marisa Franco: “He had a bachelor party, and half of his friends bailed last minute on his own bachelor party. And he was talking about these friends and how one of them lived next to him, and I thought in my head, Those are not friends. How is this guy defining friendship?
Julie Beck: Is this when I get on my soapbox?
Rebecca Rashid: Yeah, you can get on your soapbox.
Beck: Okay, so flaking … I hate it.
Lizzie Post: I think doing the thing where you just don’t show up is really not cool.
Franco: If you think it’s going to happen organically, you’re not going to have friends.
Beck: Hi. I’m Julie Beck, a senior editor at The Atlantic.
Rashid: And I’m Becca Rashid, producer of the How To series.
Beck: This is How to Talk to People.
Beck: Becca, I know it might seem strange to suggest we don’t know how to talk to our friends and need a podcast to tell us how. But actually, there are a lot of common misunderstandings and conflicts in friendship that often go unspoken. The beauty and the challenge of friendship is that it encompasses so many different types of relationships, but that means sometimes friends have clashing expectations of what the friendship should look like. We don’t always talk about that explicitly. Flaking is a prime example of a kind of unspoken friction that can build up in friendships.
Rashid: What is it about flaking in particular that bothers you?
Beck: It’s not just that it annoys me. I don’t think anybody likes being flaked on. It’s this sense that it has become so very normalized in our culture and is just a routine part of social life—that you actually almost have to expect that, like, a good percentage of the time, if you make a plan with somebody that plan is going to change or get canceled.
I think we’re a little too quick to be like, If I am not in optimal, tip-top shape to show up, then I won’t show up. Or that we have to be completely at ease, completely comfortable, completely full of vim and vigor to totally hang out with our friends.
And I’m not upset if you lose your childcare and you have to back out, or if you get sick. Things happen. Life happens. I think we can all be understanding. What bugs me is that it feels just completely fine in a lot of social circles to just cancel with no explanation or the reason is just I’m not feeling up to it today or I’m really tired from work.
I think it’s kind of part and parcel with a big premium that we put on protecting our energy as like the greatest good. But I don’t know if we should protect our energy at the cost of our relationships.
Post: There’s a certain point where it just feels like, okay, do you care about this friendship?
Beck: I think that Lizzie Post could help us. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, who is a famous etiquette expert who wrote a well-known column about 100 years ago. Lizzie is now the co-president of the Emily Post Institute, and she recently published the sort of updated centennial edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette.
There’s definitely no shortage of dating advice columns or parenting advice out there. But I think what we wanted to find was some more etiquette tips, or best practices for managing those tricky conversations in friendships where expectations are less well-defined. And that’s right up Lizzie’s alley.
Beck: I’m going to start with a big philosophical question. What do you owe your friends?
Post: We are such individuals, and just like in relationships, your love language might be different. In friendships, your friendship language is different. So what one person thinks we owe a friend, another person might think, No, that’s ridiculous; no way. So I think it’s a very, very personal question. And that makes navigating those relationships that are our friendships a little bit more difficult, and something that we want to pay more attention to. To recognize that not everyone sees friendship the exact same way that we do.
Beck: Something that I have noticed is that it feels totally normalized to flake on plans. So, for instance, if you and I make a plan today to get drinks next Friday, I’m going to feel like when Friday comes around, I’m going to feel a need to text you to ask, “Are we still on for drinks today?” And it would not be strange for you to text me the day before, or even day of, to say, “You know, actually something came up” or “I’m just not feeling up to it.” Have you observed this too?
Post: Absolutely. I think to a certain degree, it’s always been the norm that if you don’t feel well or if an emergency happens. If you’ve got a stomach bug, that’s understandable. That’s not flaking out. That’s life happening and getting in the way of fun, social plans.
Post: But I do think that there is a larger trend of being much more willing to let the emotional “Do I feel like it?” play a factor in whether or not they end up committing to or actually following through on plans.
Beck: Or the sense that the plans that we make are not set in stone, or what takes precedence is, like, just needing to do what’s best for you.
Post: Well, and some people even say that it’s like an insult to the friendship of getting together, that it’s like, “Oh, hanging out with me sounds like a chore for you right now?” And there are times where that’s true. We get it; like, we all have learned that bandwidths have capacities. I get it. I don’t know that we need to be leaning into that, like, every week.
Beck: Yeah. And I mean, I’ve been told that I am too curmudgeonly about this. [Laughter.] I remember planning a party and sort of complaining to someone about how I couldn’t really plan like how much food to buy or anything, because half of the people who responded “Yes” to the invite wouldn’t show up.
Beck: And the person told me that I was being unreasonable–
Beck: That I needed to accept and account for the fact that this is just part of social life.
Post: I would not have been pleased if I had been told by a friend to just expect that 50 percent of my guest list isn’t going to show up for a party that they said they would come to. I would let friends know, like, as we talk about entertaining styles and preferences. I mean, these are things friends can talk about.
And you also get to be you. You’re creating your own entertaining style. You’re creating your own adult life in this world. And it might be something that you find you really value in friendship is cultivating a group of friends who really stick to their plans.
Beck: Yeah. Some of it has to be just sort of the deep-seated, like, childhood fear of throwing a party and nobody comes. Right?
Post: I have that too, yes.
Beck: I mean, if something happens often enough, is it just not rude? But just the way that things are … and we need to just deal with it?
Post: That’s a great question. The place where this one doesn’t check that box for me is that there’s enough people like you and me out in the world who don’t appreciate this, who don’t see this as a good trend. You know what I mean? This idea of committing to things and canceling very last-minute for effectively no reason other than just not totally feeling up to it, even though there’s nothing wrong with you.
Post: I think that this is something that’s frustrating a lot of people the same way for a good 20, 30, 40, 50 … I think even my great-great-grandmother was writing about it. So we’re going to go ahead and say 70 years. People have been annoyed at the fact that people don’t RSVP well.
Like, there’s always going to be a couple of friends who, no matter what, show up really late. There’s always going to be someone who’s your most likely to cancel.
Post: There’s also always going to be the person most likely to always show up. You know, the person most likely to offer to bring something or to surprise you. You know, like, there’s the good stuff, too.
Beck: Yeah. We should give those people a medal.
Post: They deserve—yes, gold stars. [Laughter.]
Beck: Becca, there is a really interesting study that I saw a while back where the researchers asked people how they would approach different conflicts with friends versus with a romantic partner. And generally, people expected that you would actively address a problem with a romantic partner. You would talk about it. You know, they say, like, “Never go to bed angry.” But they found that there was more of a culture of passivity in friendships, that people were more likely to say nothing and just kind of hope the issue went away on its own, or kind of quietly put some distance in the friendship rather than talking about a problem.
Rashid: Passivity in my own approach to friendships comes from a fear that being too direct may come across as aggressive, or asking for too much. It makes my desire for a deeper connection with friends, especially in adulthood, feel needy or childish. Or sometimes even inappropriate or, like, overstepping.
Beck: Okay, so can we talk about how to practically handle these situations? If a friend flakes on me, how should I respond? Right now I feel like my only option is to just say, “Okay, I understand.”
Post: I often feel resigned to polite acceptance as well. I think that this is one of those things where, in the moment, that really is the best thing you can do. Because if they’re canceling really last-minute—like, within the day of the party—you’ve got things you’re busy doing, and you’ve got other guests that you have to focus on.
So in some ways it makes your own life easier to take that kind of etiquette high-road route. And say, “Oh, you know, I’m really sorry to hear that. If you change your mind, feel free to come.” You know, especially if it’s that I just don’t feel like it, you know? “Hey, if you find after an hour, you’ve rebounded and you’re ready to come on over.”
Beck: I mean, is there a way to respectfully say that it bothers you? Or would you even recommend doing that?
Post: This is something that I might do at a different time. It might be one of those things where you find a good moment, where you’re talking about your friendship. A moment will present itself and you can say: “Hey, you know, I got to be honest. That’s actually something that, you know, I will cop to. I feel hurt when that happens.”
Beck: This sort of “no worries if not” culture. This is a phrase that I hear a lot, and find myself using and then hate myself for using a lot. [Laughter.] Which is, you know—it feels hard or burdensome to ask friends for help, or ask them to show up for us in some type of way. So: “Lizzie, would you mind, like, pet-sitting my cat while I’m out of town? But no worries if not.” So just immediately giving you an out.
Post: Yeah, yeah.
Beck: It feels like an etiquette thing, because it feels like I’m being polite and deferential. But is being polite really equal to not asking each other for anything?
Post: It’s more so acknowledging that this person might really want to do you a favor and be there for you, and you want to let them know it’s truly okay if they can’t. I think a lot of that is about removing pressure for people. And that, I think, is polite. Like, I can find politeness in that.
Beck: Yeah; it’s very situational, I mean, maybe I just got broken up with. I’m so upset, and I’m like, “Lizzie, can you please talk? But no worries. But then there are some worries, if not.” You know? I also just feel like I don’t understand why you would think of showing up for a friend as a burden.
Post: I think a lot of it is that it can be. If you have a lot going on, if you’re going through a lot, sometimes adding that moment of someone else’s need that isn’t a partner, that isn’t a child, that isn’t a parent—you know, they don’t live with you—that it can feel like something you don’t have the capacity to do.
At the same time, it’s amazing to see what you actually still have in your reserves when you attempt a moment of giving and generosity, when you feel like you don’t have anything.
I think what I really like about modern friendships is the willingness to ask if it would be okay to lean on someone. That’s something I don’t always think has been a part of things. I don’t know that in Emily’s day, when things were really hard, just how much you got to lean into a friend, the way we lean into them now.
Rashid: I think what stuck out to me, Julie, about our conversation with Lizzie is how this balance of sort of the American mainstream culture of individualism and the voluntary nature of friendship is a tough thing to balance. And it’s hard to know what to ask of our friends.
Beck: Totally. I mean, the thing about friendship, right, is that it is purely and entirely defined by choice, and the things we put on each other we have to decide within every single friendship. Etiquette is a really helpful framework for thinking through what to say in specific situations. But a lot of people could benefit from broader, bigger conversations about the foundational issues of their friendships: “How intimate is this friendship? What is our role in each other’s lives? What do we expect from each other?”
Beck: Like, friends are friends because they choose to be. Not because they got a marriage license, not because somebody gave birth to somebody. You choose to be friends, and so you choose to show up for each other. And when we live in a culture that is so individualistic, we can default to that kind of “you do you,” and we’ll just give to each other what we can when we can. Having any sort of understood obligation to one another can be hard. If you are expecting something different than your friend is expecting, or just getting on the same page about what this friendship is and the level of expectation that we have of each other, it can be tricky.
Franco: I had a friend who was coming back from Mexico, and she was arriving at the airport at like midnight.
Beck: Marisa Franco is a psychologist and the author of the book Platonic.
Franco: And this is a friend I really wanted to get closer to. And I know that, you know, going out of your way to help someone in a time of need. Great way to get closer to someone.
Beck: Hot, too-hot tip.
Franco: But I’m like: Oh, my gosh, I hate staying up late. I’m a morning person. I go to sleep at, like, 10:32. Should I pick her up?
Beck: I gotta pause this conversation I was having with Marisa Franco for a second, because while we were talking I found myself thinking about Lizzie Post’s etiquette advice. And I actually think that sometimes we can be too polite to our friends. Like, maybe we’re hesitant to even ask in the first place whether they can pick us up at the airport. And that sort of over-politeness, I think, can hold us back from having deeper friendships. And with her airport example, Marisa offered a straightforward example for figuring that out for yourself.
Franco: And Julie, I literally had to ask myself, Would I do this for a romantic partner? Because of the ways romantic partners have monopolized what my brain associated with, like, deep love. So I had to ask myself that question. And when I did, I said, Yeah, I would pick her up. I would pick up a romantic partner at the airport.
Beck: Marisa is someone who’s thought really deeply about how our culture encourages us to put friendships last on the priority list. And that can lead to us being weirdly, overly polite to our friends, like we’re putting ourselves last before even talking about whether that’s what we both really want. She and I talked a lot about the communication challenges that can happen if you want friendships to be more central in your life.
Franco: The model of friendship that we have is just so threadbare, more threadbare than it feels like it’s ever been—that this is just someone who we go to once-a-month happy hours with.
Beck: Yeah. It’s so interesting to me to see the way that friendship is defined by flexibility, in a way that no other relationship is. There’s no specific role a friend has to play in your life.
If I introduce you to somebody, and I say, “This is my friend Marisa,” that could mean anything from “We’ve known each other since the day we were born and have never been apart” to “We get coffee at work sometimes.”
Every friendship is different, and it has to be designed by the friends themselves. And of course, the endless possibility is a strength of it. But do you think it can also be overwhelming to people?
Franco: Yeah; definitely both things. It’s something that I love about friendship, because it’s like whatever need I have, I can get met through friendship. Like, we could be platonic life partners or we could hang out twice a year.
But the slipperiness of that is that, I think, a lot of the times there is conflict in friendship—because this is my understanding of friendship versus yours. You’re like, “Friendship is trivial and not something to put a lot of effort in,” and “Good vibes only.” And I’m like, “Friendships are deep and sustaining and profound relationships for me.”
And if we have that different view of friendship, you’re not going to show up at times when I really need you. And you’re not going to expect me to get upset, because if I had your expectation, I might not have gotten upset.
I was talking to a friend’s husband. He had a bachelor party, and half of his friends bailed last-minute on his own bachelor party. Everyone had to pay a thousand dollars to go to his bachelor party for like two nights.
Franco: A thousand dollars to go to his bachelor party for two nights. And he was talking about these friends, and how one of them lived next to him. And I thought in my head, Those are not friends. How is this guy defining friendship? Like, that is not how I define friendship.
And so that made me think of the difference between “good friend” versus “good company.” Good company: I like you as a person. We enjoy our time together. We have good conversations. Good friendship: A friend is someone you invest in. It is a commitment. It is: I’m showing up in your times of need. It is: I’m doing things that sometimes might inconvenience me, because I’m thinking about how much they’ll mean to you. It is: I’m going to celebrate your successes. It’s: I’m going to follow through with what I say that I will do to the extent possible. It’s, basically: I’m considering you, and I’m considering your needs. In a lot of our culture, we’re stuck on “good company” and we haven’t gotten to “good friendship.”
Beck: How do you set those expectations in a friendship when it is a voluntary relationship?
Franco: With communication. Like, I’ve had to tell friends, for example, “I would love to hear from you more. I notice I’m often the one here reaching out. Would you be open to that?” And it’s taking that risk, right? Because it is a risk.
Because that could lead them to say, “This person expects too much. I’m gonna back away.” But it could also lead them to say, “Yeah; I’m going to show up, and I’m going to reinvest, and I’m going to make sure Marisa feels like she’s in a reciprocal friendship.”
It’s also okay to just talk about it in a more upfront way. Like, I went on a retreat with some friends. I guess it was like a series of questions that went around in regards to like, how do we support each other as friends? And one of the questions was like, “Do you like when friends show up at the last minute at your house?” Oh, it’s a helpful question to ask. You know, like sometimes I’m in your neighborhood; I’m like, Should I reach out? Should I not? If I don’t ask, I might assume, No. And then there’s a missed opportunity to connect. So, yeah.
Beck: The showing up last-minute—well, first of all, I feel like that’s something that always happens on TV shows, right? Like on The O.C., they were always just walking over to each other’s house to have a serious conversation without ever, like, calling to say, “I’m coming over.” And it feels very unrealistic.
And at the same time, I do have a friend who lives around the corner who will sometimes text me like, “I’m walking by your place. Do you want to come down?”
I think something that I’ve observed is a sort of strange politeness or formality in the way that people sometimes interact with their friends. For example, you know, we text to set up a time to call instead of just calling. Are we just avoiding inconveniencing each other? Why would that be such a worry?
Franco: Yeah. I think a lot of the times we fear imposing; we fear burdening people. But like, the biggest burden we place can sometimes be our silence, because we want to be polite. And yeah—I think people think This is me not imposing. This is me trying to respect or understand a friend’s boundaries. But the thing is, we don’t actually ask what they are. What I tend to see is it’s more from a place that This friend doesn’t want to hear from me or This friend will be burdened by me.
So thus, It’s the kind act for me to do less. Let me not reach out when they’re going through all this grief, because they probably want their time alone. You know? So one thing that I always talk about with making friends is assume people like you, because it’s going to trigger a set of behaviors—warmth, openness—that is going to make that more likely to be true.
But I also think the more we assume people like us, the more intimacy that we have with them. So the more we assume They’re just going to want to hear from me on the phone. I don’t have to set up this time to call. I’m assuming that you love me.
Franco: I teach a class on loneliness. And one of my students is like, “I just think if I had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, like, who could I call?” And I’m like, “How would you feel if one of the friends that you made reached out to you in the middle of the night because they needed help with going to the hospital?” He says, “I would feel totally honored that they picked me.”
Franco: And the problem is, when it comes to our glitchy brains, when we’re predicting how we come off, we tend to be a lot more cynical and negative than what is the truth.
Especially with asking for help from friends, I get really nervous about it, and I take myself through that exercise where I’m like, Well, what if this friend asked me for the same thing? How would I feel? That’s probably the more accurate outcome.
Beck: Is there a sense that we feel like we need to be deferential to everything else that our friends have going on in their lives to the degree that we deprioritize ourselves before they have a chance to deprioritize us?
Franco: Yes; I think that’s right. You know, there is this theory basically arguing that we need to operate along two poles: of protecting ourselves and protecting the relationship. And there’s a lot of people who are often in this place of protecting themselves by not reaching out and being overly deferential. Not being vulnerable, not initiating. But they don’t often realize that there is a cost to all that self-protection, which is your relationships.
Beck: I feel like to some degree, there’s a feeling that we’re supposed to just accept whatever it is that our friends are able to offer, Or that the only acceptable response is—“It’s okay; I understand.” That the highest value, or the truest truth, is that everybody needs to do what’s best for themselves. And I think that’s so stars-and-stripes American. I don’t know if it’s that way everywhere. I think maybe it would be helpful if you can explain what individualistic boundaries are, and what the boundaries you’re seeing that you think are overly self-focused look like.
Franco: Yeah. I think the self-focused boundaries look like, in a sort of overarching way: I’m going to fulfill my needs no matter what your needs are. Which looks like, “Hey, you know, if you call me really upset at 10 p.m., I’m not going to answer” or “Hey, like, I don’t need to make time for you, because at this time in my life I’m very, very busy.”
To me, setting a boundary is a communal act. It’s like: “I set this boundary for myself so I can invest in our friendship in the long term and not get burned out.” And it’s: “I’m going to consider your needs when I set this boundary.” And it’s almost like: “I’m going to set this boundary and also offer an offering like, ‘Oh, I’m not free to talk at that time. What about another time?’” Or even like, you know, “I’m not free to come to that, but I’m rooting for you, and I’m supporting you.” Sometimes it’s just for affirmation. That’s the offering.
Beck: Do you have a sense of why you think that is a genre of boundaries that’s become popular? Is it sort of self-care, and “I need to put my own oxygen mask on before I can put on yours?”
Franco: Yeah. I think about a lot of friendship behaviors there’s an emotional incongruity. What I mean is that your experience of this act is very different from your friends’ in a way that you’re not always privy to.
So you might set this boundary, thinking about: Oh, I’m really busy, and this is going to benefit me. But when your friend receives that boundary, they’re feeling like: I’m so alone, and I have no one in this moment when we really, really need someone. And so there’s just this, I guess, this disconnect between our two emotional worlds in that moment.
Because if we’re only thinking about our reality, it makes a lot of sense. But when we think about our co-realities—our reality and the other person’s reality—then we might realize that even if this act benefits us, the costs for our friend are far greater.
You know, when you have a healthy relationship, what happens is you begin to include them in your sense of self. So there’s a disconnect happening when you’re willing to completely upset and let down your friend to meet your own needs.
Franco: And that’s kind of what I’m referring to with these individualistic boundaries, which is like: I’m going to get 100 percent of my needs met. Even if zero percent of your needs are going to be met.
The communal boundary is to protect the relationship. The individualistic boundary is to protect yourself.
Beck: So, Marisa, I’ve been reporting on friendship for a long time. And when we’re discussing kind of how we make friends, and how do we maintain those friendships, I feel like the conversation often stops at this very simplistic platitude of “friendship takes work,” and that’s very vague and general. But I’m also wondering with your perspective as a psychologist, whether you see anything kind of dicey about suggesting that friendship is labor.
Franco: I think so. [Chuckles.] I mean, what are all our associations with “work”? Like, negative. Something that we have to do, Something that we need to get compensated for to be able to do. And I think when we use those capitalistic terms for friendship, we not only are applying that term, but the web of associations that we add to that term—the baggage of all of those associations.
So I like the idea of friendship taking effort rather than friendship taking work. I want to convey that in friendship, we’re going to be inconvenienced. In friendship, we’re going to do things that we don’t want to do. In friendship, we are going to have to go out of our way and take initiative and be proactive and all of those things. And I think those all fit into the realm of “effort.” But when we say “work,” it’s almost like it’s something that we don’t want.
Beck: I mean, I don’t think most people’s intentions are usually bad. It just seems like some of the norms in our culture are steering us toward undermining our friendships without maybe realizing it. Where if it is something that you really want to prioritize in your life, it feels a little bit like swimming against the current.
Franco: It does. It can feel like unrequited love a lot. But I will say, there’s also subcommunities, like queer communities. [Chuckles.] Where it’s a lot more common for people to put a lot more value on friendship. And there’s talks about asexual communities; there’s talks about platonic life partners. I think queer communities are the pioneers of friendship and could teach hetero people a lot. I don’t know if you’ve heard the term “relationship anarchy,” but it’s, um…
Beck: No; can you explain it?
Franco: It’s one of my faves. It’s this idea that we don’t need to use what society has told us as our guideposts for the value that we place on different types of relationships. We can choose what resonates most with us. And my choice is: I want to value, again, friends as much as a potential spouse. Like, that’s the hierarchy that I would want in my life in the larger anarchy framework. If you start from a place of anarchy, where would you want friends to be in your personal valuing system?
Rashid: So when I was out of town for a week last week, Julie, one of my best friends texted me saying, “Okay, I’m going to be ‘full, needy boyfriend’ when you’re back.” [Chuckles.] And we hadn’t been talking for a week or so, because we were both too busy. And I just thought it was so nice that she sent that little note.
And the first thing I thought was: A lot of times when we’re trying to express to friends how much we miss each other or love each other or need each other, it’s kind of as if we only have the language of romance to express that. And sometimes we use the language of love that we understand through romantic partnerships; [it] expresses that we have that need for our friends at all.
Beck: Right. Like, it was very cute and sweet that she said that. But also, like—you don’t have to minimize wanting to hang out with your friend by, like, pretending you’re acting like a needy boyfriend. Like, you are allowed to miss your friend.
Rashid: Right. Totally.
Beck: That study I referenced earlier that was talking about a culture of passivity—it was sort of focusing on conflict. But I would venture to say that there’s kind of a culture of passivity in the good times as well.
You know, where friendship is too often like a relationship of convenience, or will go with the flow. And “I’ll see you when I see you.” And it’s hard to actually keep up a friendship if you’re being passive in that way and you just expect it to come effortlessly.
Rashid: Right. And I genuinely don’t know how a lot of my friendships would function if we didn’t put in that quote unquote “work.” Because, you know, two of my best friends live outside of the U.S., and we are in different time zones and don’t catch each other easily. And usually one of them tries to call me super early in the morning, my time—which half the time I can’t even pick up the phone.
It’s just emblematic of that sort of small gesture you can make for a friend. And it shows me that, you know—they tried to catch me, and if they could, they would be on the phone with me right now.
Beck: And do you feel like that, quote unquote, “work” and effort that you put in to try to catch each other in different time zones is a burden to you?
Rashid: No, not at all. It’s the smallest, you know, gesture of love that we could sort of show each other, and takes almost no effort.
Beck: Yeah. But that’s why I think it’s so strange that it’s like, “Oh, the work of friendship is some hard or negative or burdensome thing.” Like, you’re so happy to see that missed call. And I’m sure she was so happy to call you.
That’s all for this episode of How to Talk to People. This episode was produced by Becca Rashid, and hosted by me, Julie Beck. Editing by Jocelyn Frank and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Rob Smerciak. Special thanks to A.C. Valdez. The managing producer of How to Talk to People is Andrea Valdez.