Revisiting the Friendzone

I have written about the friendzone before. In that post, I stated without evidence that “what men really mean when they say they’ve been friendzoned is that they failed to generate a spark of attraction in the woman they desired. Rather than owning up to this fact, they push blame onto that woman.” I still believe that’s true. We say to ourselves, “She doesn’t like me despite all the nice things I’ve done for her; that’s her fault.” The term itself is a way to hide the fact that blame has been shifted.

But in the fifteen months or so since I posted that, I’ve come to think that there is more merit to the friendzone concept than I had originally considered. The frustration of the friendzoned man (and, I supposed, the “bro-zoned” woman) isn’t just that the object of his affection only sees him as a friend. It’s that she only sees him as a friend and there is nothing he can do to change her feelings. He has encountered a locked door between where he is and where he wants to be and there is no key in sight. But why?

First, we have to acknowledge that once we have formed an opinion of someone, it is extremely difficult to change it. This extends far beyond interpersonal relationships. For instance, what would George W. Bush have to do in order for the average Democrat to think of him as a good man? Or what would Barack Obama have to do in order for the average Republican to find him trustworthy? How many Best Actress awards would it take before you had the thought, “Hey, maybe Kristen Stewart can act”? Or think of a person you have found to be warm and generous. If you learned she stiffed a server the last time she ate out, would you change your opinion? What if it was five times in a row? It takes a lot more to change an opinion than it does to form one. That doesn’t really answer the question, though. It just restates it. So maybe the friendzone is a specific case of a more general truth, that cemented opinions are difficult to change. So what’s causing that?

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that we have two ways to get at the truth: the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Leonard Mlodinow summarizes it like this. “Scientiststs gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining these observations, and test them. Attorneys begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t.” Mlodinow argues that that we are both of these simultaneously, that our conscious minds are like scientists while our unconscious minds are like lawyers. “The human mind is designed to be both a scientist and an attorney, both a conscious seeker of objective truth and an unconscious, impassioned advocate for what we want to believe. Together these approaches vie to create our worldview.” I think Mlodinow is mostly correct, in that our unconscious minds craft conclusions that we later attempt to explain rationally, and the only “scientific” thinking we do comes in the controlled, disciplined areas of our conscious brain.

Scientific thinking is something we learn. We are born lawyers.

Beginning with a conclusion you want to convince others of, seeking evidence that supports it – and discrediting evidence that doesn’t – is another way to describe what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” The eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman defines confirmation bias as “our tendency, when receiving new information, to process it in a way that it fits our pre-existing narrative about a situation or problem.” Think about that idea in the context of the questions of Bush or Obama. If you learn that Bush is doing extensive charity work in Africa, as well as donating a considerable portion of his personal wealth in doing so, that might be enough to convince you he’s not as bad as you had previously thought. More likely, though, is if you previously thought of him as a rotten politician then this is just another example. “He’s just trying to repair his legacy,” you might say. “This is all for show.” The pre-existing narrative – George Bush is evil – trumps face-value interpretation of the new information.

George Bush

With that in mind, let’s go back to the friendzone scenario. Try to think about it from the woman’s point of view. What is the pre-existing narrative in this case? “This man is my friend.” So when that friend does something in an effort to make her like him more, he is, in all likelihood, succeeding in doing so. But he is simultaneously reinforcing that narrative. Where he might think, “I’ll pay for our dinner. Then she’ll know I’d be a good provider!” she’s left to think, “It was really nice of my friend to pay for my meal.”  He might pick her up from work late one night when she doesn’t have a ride. “I am so lucky to have such a good friend.” He might even save her life. “I’d be dead,” she might think. “He’s going to be my best friend for the rest of my life.” Confirmation bias is working against him every step of the way.

If this is true, it would be understandable for one to be left feeling helpless. But I don’t think that’s the lesson to take. Rather, I think it lends merit to the idea that men should be more up front with their feelings in general. Or at the very least they shouldn’t bury them under a thick veneer of friendship. It may not seem fair, but whatever narrative you construct is the lens through which people will see you. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian famously said, “Write not so you can be understood; write so it is impossible to be misunderstood.” The same advice applies to your image.

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8 thoughts on “Revisiting the Friendzone

  1. I’ve been thinking about the friend zone a lot recently because I’m realizing that what I thought was the friend zone is not what everyone knows as the friend zone.

    To me, the friend zone is when you’re friends with someone, like legitimately and honestly, not just as a ploy to get…sex or love or whatever. And through that interaction you decide that you’re interested romantically, you express that interest, and find that the other person, because they’ve only ever seen you as a friend, doesn’t feel the same way.

    It makes a guy or gal feel disappointed or sad, but not angry at the other person. I would feel like maybe I could have done more, but I wouldn’t blame anyone but myself for it, even if I use phrasing that sounds accusatory (“I got friendzoned”).

    So I find it hard to understand this concept as a shifting of blame.

    I do agree that people should be more up front with their feelings, and take a decisive action with those feelings, but it’s also hard, and it’s even harder when you come to that point from an existing friendship.

    • To clarify, I meant to represent these as two different cases. There is the case on the one hand where a man simply fails to communicate his feelings or attract the other and does shift blame. That seems like a far more common issue. The second case is the one you’re experiencing, and that’s the one this post is about. I’m sorry you’ve found yourself in that situation. I hope you’re able to make something out of it where you can both be satisfied.

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  3. Recently, I had a dream that my best guy friend was the Craig’s List Killer. Strange, because this guy is one of the kindest people I know. As best I can understand, I think the dream was my subconscious chattering about the friend zone.

    I’ve lost male friendships I highly valued to the friend zone/unexpressed feelings implosion. I felt awful not knowing what to do about it or how to salvage things. How do you talk things out when all the things you need to talk about have been specifically kept unsaid?

    So now my brain seems to be going on paranoid overdrive, fearing that yet another friendship is doomed and worrying that I will be hurting someone I care about. Any advice on preventing fallout in these kinds of situations? A guy’s perspective would be great.

    • Has this guy expressed feelings for you? If not, I’d say not to worry about it. If he does and you don’t reciprocate, it’s important to be up front and direct about it. Let him know what kind of relationship you are comfortable having. Be understanding if he needs to step away from it for a while. It’s a sometimes sad reality that a great compliment — an offer of love and affection — can cause a significant rift.
      The worst thing you can do is waffle, though. If you are consistent in the form of friendship you want, those feelings won’t likely take a permanent root. I know that’s a frustrating situation. I hope all goes well!

      • Thanks, I appreciate that.

        He hasn’t expressed any feelings directly. There are comments he makes and other things he does which make me think that he would like to be more than friends.

        So to make sure I’ve understood you correctly, you’re saying that I shouldn’t do anything unless he directly expresses his feelings to me?

        I hate the “elephant in the room” feeling! The last two times this happened to me, I played oblivious because nothing was said directly, and it still ended badly.

      • That definitely complicates things. It is awkward to presume feelings and act on that presumption. You could ask directly, but that gets tricky, too.
        I have been asked twice by someone if I had feelings for them. (Once I did, the other I didn’t.) For the time that I didn’t, it was a relief to be asked because I didn’t want her to have the wrong idea either. That might be a good way to go.

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