Self

Friendship Maintenance For Adults: Are You A Chaser Or A Gatekeeper?

Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
friends eating lunch together taking selfie

One day, after signing in on the office timesheet and waiting for my computer to boot up, I opened all the necessary programs to begin my workday. Once the instant messaging service logged in, I sent a pop-up to my office “bestie.” 

“What did you do this weekend?” I asked her as I scanned down my to-do list for the day and sipped my coffee.

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Her response popped up almost instantaneously on my monitor.

“Didn’t you see my Facebook?”

There was no smiley face-with-its-tongue-sticking-out emoji accompanying her question, so it looked like she was serious.

Defensive thoughts flicked into my mind, such as:

“If she was too busy to respond to Monday morning hello, she could have just said so.”

I shook my head, trying to formulate an appropriate response. All I could think was: Does she actually consider it my responsibility to keep up with her social media?

I often saw my work friend six days a week since both of us frequently put in overtime hours at the office on Saturdays.

One of us would text the other on our way out the door of our building, a point I divulge to illustrate how frequent our contact was, regardless of whether we were at work.

Our tendency to constantly message back and forth made this particular Monday morning non-greeting even more aggressive and strange.

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Is it part of the implied contract of friendship to keep tabs on each other’s social media accounts?

The phrase “emotional labor” describes the burdens of remembering important days, keeping up with medical appointments, and checking in on loved ones.

At its core, emotional labor is managing the expectations and feelings of others. Emotional labor is, essentially, consideration. This work is foundational to successful personal and business relationships.

Have you ever had a friend that you feel like you're chasing? It can be demoralizing and confusing to feel as though if you don’t say hello, schedule lunch dates, or otherwise initiate communication with a particular person, it won’t happen at all.

The texts left on “read” and emails without responses create a heavy weight to which, eventually, the entire relationship may succumb.

It’s not easy being a chaser, the one who says, “hello,” first, the person who sends the text asking to make plans, the friend who keeps the group thread organized while planning a party. Chasers can become burnt out from the emotional labor they expend.

Emotional labor has always existed, but it has not always had a name. 

In households with more than one parent, one partner is often the point person when it comes to managing the schedule for the family, whether it is penciling in kid’s soccer tournaments and ordering birthday cake or extending invitations to a dinner party.

That person likely knows that they are the glue holding the entire household’s operation together. They also see the amount of time and mental energy it takes to keep the calendar front-of-mind when assessing potential additions, subtractions, or alterations.

“No, we can’t go to Aunt Jeannie’s party because of Susie’s karate class,” the gatekeeper says, absorbing the anger (or relief) from whoever asked about the party.

The gatekeeper purchases thoughtful presents and sends flowers to funerals or birthday parties along with sweet sentiments in a card.

They often serve as a de facto historian, asking older loved ones to recount favorite memories of beloved relatives, writing down recipes, and passing along treasured keepsakes. The fear that strikes the heart of a gatekeeper when they realize they forgot an occasion is real.

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Forgetting a birthday doesn’t just reflect poorly on the emotional laborer — it makes the family look rude or thoughtless. A gatekeeper, the person upon which the burden to recognize occasions falls, is judged for this failure.

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Let’s face it: being thoughtful is hard work. That’s one of the reasons Facebook is so ubiquitous; the platform makes it easy to tap out a “happy birthday!” message without consulting a calendar or committing dates to memory. 

What happens when Facebook, or any other tools we use to communicate, can’t be reached?

When Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were all down, did we use our cell phones to (gasp!) actually call each other? No, we googled “social media outage” and at most texted each other, but only if we really needed something. 

Social media makes us feel connected; even though, in reality, it makes us feel more isolated.

Adult friendships can admittedly be challenging to manage.

The expansion of families and the addition of new responsibilities, not to mention crushing work schedules and a global pandemic, have made it more difficult to keep in touch with friends. It’s a world apart from the friendships forged in schools or camps in the carefree days of youth.

All of this brings me back to my work friend. Was it my responsibility to keep up with her weekend activities, ones she didn’t text me about specifically but posted about on social media? The short answer is: I still don’t know. We didn’t have a friendship agreement, such as the contract Leonard and Sheldon negotiated on The Big Bang Theory.

This is where the “adult” portion of adult friendships comes into play: communicating our expectations. When I first befriended this person, had she told me she expected I would closely follow her on social media, I would have laughed. I didn’t even have an Instagram account back then, and I only looked at Facebook on my computer a couple of times a week.

If she had made the expectation clear that I prioritize keeping apprised of her restaurant check-ins and other Facebook posts, then I would have known better than to benignly ask her, on a Monday morning, how she spent her weekend.

Instead, I realized that the emotional labor I used on this particular friendship might be better suited to other relationships.

That in and of itself was a valuable lesson.

Laura Williams-Burke is an etiquette consultant who specializes in relationships. She is also a book concierge and the author of the forthcoming children's book, A Friend For Milton.

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