Friendship Vs. Achievement: How Do You Rank Yourself?

Posted on November 22, 2010


The sociologist Deborah Tannen identifies two outlooks on the social world. For some, she writes, “life is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation. Hierarchies are more of friendship than of power.” For others, life is “a contest to preserve independence and avoid failure.”

Tannen thinks these two outlooks correlate to gender. Women adopt the first outlook and men adopt the second. I don’t think there’s a strict correlation between the outlooks and the genders but I suspect it’s accurate to say more women more often adopt the first outlook than men. Admitting that, I should also say, I know plenty of women who can and do adopt the second outlook and men who adopt the first.

When I reflect on my own outlook on the social world, I have to admit that the preservation of my independence, especially in terms of thought and expression, is the highest priority. Although I’ve mostly conquered my fear of failure and even embrace failure as a necessary step to lasting success, I still tend to assess my social rank in terms of success and failure at some activity. Furthermore, I’ve never feared and I often seek out isolation. I’m also pretty adept at creating and maintaining intimate relationships and I think this is because I’m not afraid of isolation. My working hypothesis: people are afraid of intimacy because it’s often the root cause of isolation. In revealing all that we are, those with whom we wish to have intimacy may discover a reason to isolate us.

For those of you who (predominantly) look at the social world through the pursuit of intimacy and the threat of isolation, my question is this, how is “the hierarchy of friendship” determined and/or negotiated? How stable is it? Does it change over time or in different “spaces”. Is the hierarchy — and your place in it — something about which you are aware (some of the time, all of the time, or never)? How do you measure it? How do you effect it? How does it effect you?

“Why do you ask”, you ask. From a personal perspective, I’m starting to suspect there is a dimension to social life that I’ve largely overlooked. From a practical perspective, I think in a world of security, wealth, and full communication, the hierarchy of friendship will play a more dominant role than the hierarchy of personal achievement. From either perspective, it’s something about which I should have a better understanding and I don’t think there’s a book about it. If there is, tell me what it is!