This may come as a shock, but I wasn’t very good at making friends when I was a child.
I was awkward, gawky, self-conscious, and never “right”. I never had the right clothes or the right hair or the right words. I wasn’t cute or cool or hip. I had glasses (before they were geek-chic), I was chubby, and I was always the tallest in the class. Always. Also, I was painfully shy.
It didn’t help that we moved to a new school every year or two (due to my father’s job) and I had to go through the “making new friends” thing all over again.
When I was ten, we moved from the US back to Australia. There would be no more teasing and mocking my accent and asking me to repeat things over and over so people could laugh at me. I was hopeful.
Those hopes were quickly dashed. As it turns out, I did have an accent. I had an American accent. And I was immediately subject to the exact same teasing as I’d faced on the other side of the world.
But in amongst the bullying, there was a single bright light. I made friends. Multiple. Two of them. Their names were Natalija and Nicole. We hit it off when we all walked home in the same direction on my first day, and that was that.
Every morning, Natalija and Nicole would meet up and walk up to my place to pick me up for school. We’d walk the two blocks to the schoolyard, chatting and gossiping about the teachers and the kids in our class and who was going out with whom this week. Then we’d all sit under the trees until the bell rang for morning assembly. On the way home, we’d head out of class together and walk home, sometimes stopping at the corner store to pick up a bag of mixed lollies to share.
But about a month into this beautiful friendship, I made a decision that haunts me to this day.
Every day, Natalija and Nicole would come to my place before school. And every day, without fail, I’d be running late.
“I’ll be there in a minute!” I’d yell from the bathroom where I was half-dressed, with a toothbrush in my mouth and no idea where my shoes were hidden. “I’m coming!” I’d call from the kitchen where I was trying to stuff my lunch into my schoolbag, but only succeeding in dropping books, papers, and pieces of fruit all over the floor. “Nearly there!” I’d scream from my bedroom where I was crawling around under my bed trying to find the homework I’d done the night before.
Every day. Every. Day.
I was embarrassed. Every morning I was racked with guilt and mortification, sure that Natalija and Nicole secretly resented me and talked about me behind my back. Not that they ever said anything. They never commented or complained, they never even rolled their eyes when my parents told them again that I would be out in a minute.
But I felt terrible.
So I made a decision. Because their friendship was so important to me, because I loved them as much as a ten year old girl can possibly love the only two people outside her own family who don’t mock and ridicule her, I decided to sacrifice my own happiness on their behalf.
“I’m really sorry I’m late again,” I said, meeting them at the door with unbrushed hair and only one sock. “Just go on without me. I’m never ready when you get here, so you may as well not come by in the mornings. We can just meet up at school.”
So they left. And they didn’t come back.
Nothing was the same after that. They stopped walking past my house in the mornings — they walked to school a different way, meeting up with a couple of boys we all had crushes on. When we met up for morning assembly, I’d missed the gossip and felt like a third wheel. I didn’t know what to say to them so I stopped walking home with them in the afternoons. We drifted apart.
And I still regret it twenty-five years later.
Because when I said, “Don’t come by my house anymore,” what they heard was, “I don’t want to hang out with you anymore.”
But I learned something from the situation. I learned not to make personal sacrifices on behalf of someone else unless they’ve asked me to do so. Or, at the very least, not unless I’ve talked to them first. And I learned that what I say and what people hear aren’t always the same thing.
So please, learn from my lesson. Next time you’re tempted to make a personal sacrifice on someone else’s behalf, make sure what you’re offering what they want. Make sure you’re not accidentally saying: “I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” when what you really mean is: “I love you so much I don’t want to cause you any inconvenience.”
Postscript: I’ve been informed that this post is somewhat… depressing. So I just want to add that I posted this story because these types of miscommunications have been on my mind lately, and those lost friends have stuck with me.
As adults, we often make these sacrifices without even realising it. People think things like: “I won’t invite X to the party this time because she’s just had a baby”, or “I know Y is having money trouble, so I won’t ask if he wants to go to Hawaii with us”, or “I know Z is busy with her job so I won’t ask if she wants to volunteer at the school this year”. But the moment you make that decision on their behalf, you may send them the wrong message.
But how do you feel if you’re X, Y, or Z? If the reasons haven’t been explained to you, and you haven’t even been given an opportunity to decide for yourself? No matter how much you may justify the reasons you’ve not been invited, in your heart you feel hurt. No one wants to bet the cause of hurt feelings. Especially when you’re just trying to be nice.