Notes from the Underground: Friendships in a Fix

Reading Time: 9 minutes

By Chew Cheng Yu (16S06L), Choo Shuen Ming (16A01E), Louisa Li (16A13A) and Qiu Kexin (16A13A)

In yet another instalment of Notes from the Underground, Raffles Press speaks to 2 of our school counsellors, Mei Hui and Zull, to work out students’ problems with their friendships, and how they can go about maintaining and fixing them. Click to read previous articles in our series here!

The Very Beginning

Press (P): How does one make friends?

Zull: Start with yourself – be friendly and open to others. Don’t expect others to initiate a friendship all the time! Friendship is a two way street; I’ve had students who fell out with their friends because they weren’t sharing anything, and the relationship became strained. So be more open with sharing about your personal life: likes and dislikes, etc.

Mei Hui: The most important thing is to take the first step. Students, especially those new to the JC environment like JAEs, often find trouble breaking into the RI crowd. Taking the first step for them requires even more pluck, so when someone comes to you, try not to shut them down. Going beyond that, if you see someone isolated, why don’t you go out of your way to try bringing that person into your circle of friends?

As for those who have problems finding things to talk about, I encourage them to read, and tune in to what’s happening in school (by reading Raffles Press, maybe) – that can give you things to talk about. Or you could look at the news! There are so many things to talk about, from politics, entertainment, music, to headline news. Look for people who share common interests, and talk about them. Alternatively, if it’s someone from your class or CCA, at least you can talk about those things.

P: How do you choose your friends?

Zull: Friends are like birds of a feather flocking together. The only way to know if you share the same interests is to, again, initiate conversations, find out what this person likes or dislikes, and if it doesn’t fit your expectations or your own liking, move on to someone else. So initiate as many conversations as possible!

Mei Hui: A lot of these friendships are part of your development as a teenager to find your own identity. Sometimes you only know who you are when you’re in an uncomfortable environment and being challenged. So it’s important to put yourself out there no matter how difficult it is; the more you experience, the more you’ll figure out about who you are as a person, and the more confident you’ll become. However, be careful not to be led astray – as teenagers, your peers are very important, and their opinions may matter more to you than your teachers, or even family. Be careful who you interact with, and decide whether you agree with what they say before following them.

Zull: Working backwards, sometimes the easiest way to find out who you are is to look at your friends, because they reflect who you are. Chances are if you hang around with people who are honest and dependable, you’ll have those traits yourself.

(Probably because you’re thinking of doing the same thing)
(Probably because you’re thinking of doing the same thing)

Managing Various Relationships

Press (P): How do I balance all my different social circles (CCA, class, OG, BF/GF)?

Mei Hui: In order to maintain a friendship, you need to invest time and energy, to communicate and have opportunities to interact. However, you have little time in JC, so you need to prioritise. You need to think about who you will end up still being friends with after 2 years – which friendships do you want to maintain? Also, boyfriends and girlfriends take up the most time and energy, so if you’re going to have one, be prepared that you will have very much less time for other friends. Is that something you’re willing to sacrifice?

Zull: Also, a lot of time has to be spent studying in JC. Ultimately, you’re here for ‘A’ levels, and to enter universities; during the application they don’t ask you how many friends you have. So prioritise what is important to you.

P: Given that everyone in RI is very busy, how do we balance our commitments as students and friends?

Zull: That’s a perennial question, because even adults are struggling to have work-life balance. I think it’s all about managing your time. If you can plan how much time you want to spend studying, or with friends, you should be able to maintain at least a semblance of work-life balance.

Mei Hui: There are three big areas we spend a lot of time on: studies, sleep, and everything else (social life, leisure), and I think that in JC people tend to sacrifice their sleep. Some people look at things in in terms of seasons, where at some times of the year, it’s okay to spend more time on CCA and friends. Then when it’s closer to CTs everything needs to be sacrificed for studies, and there’ll be more time for friendships afterwards. So your commitments depend on the school calendar, and that’s one way to balance things.

It’s very important to have friends in order to maintain that balance. Having social support insulates you against stress, and is important for your mental well-being. However busy you are, it’s important to carve out some time to spend with your friends – and it can’t just be through SMS or Whatsapp or Facebook, we’re talking about face-to-face interaction.

P: Besides friendships, how do we maintain familial relationships?

Mei Hui: At the end of the day friends may come and go but your family will always be there for you, because you’re related after all – although some can have bad relationships with their family. Families are very important, and students should spend more time with them. But students tend to take their families for granted since they know that their family will always be there. It would be good to retain some bond with them by spending time together: go to the supermarket together, watch TV together etc.

Quite a number of students are actually extremely close to their family, and it helps them cope with pressure from school and hardships of life. Families are a source of unconditional acceptance after all. Even if friends abandon you or you don’t do well in school, well, at least you’ve got your family!

Zull: From what I’ve observed, more well-adjusted students are generally closer to their families. As a teenager you start forming second families, which consists of your friends, as you explore what you want to be like; but don’t forget your family. How do you manage your family relationships? Set aside time, and start small: just eating dinner together is helpful even if you’re not close to each other or aren’t sure what to talk about.

Dealing With Difficult Situations

P: How do you deal with that one person in class I just can’t stand? Do I continue being friends with him/her for the sake of it?

Mei Hui: You’ll face these problems even as an adult; you can’t choose your colleagues. Maintain a professional relationship with the person; you don’t have to shout and swear or be nasty. It does require you to be very mature and adult about it. I would advise you to avoid the person as well, but if you have to work with them, don’t go out of your way to make it unpleasant. Maintain a cordial relationship, because ultimately it’s good to have friends rather than enemies. You never know when you might need a person’s help, so don’t burn your bridges. Recently, one of my friends broke her ankle, and she posted a photo of her cast on Facebook, and one of her Facebook friends from JC, who’s now an orthopaedic surgeon, saw it and asked for her X-rays, and operated on her leg immediately, preventing further injury. It was such a coincidence because she hadn’t spoken to him for 20 years. You actually never know when you will bump into someone you know in the future, and that person might be helpful to you.

P: How do I resolve conflicts between friends? Is it advisable to maintain a friendly facade?

Mei Hui: If you’re truly close friends, you shouldn’t need to maintain a facade. Honesty is really the best policy — you need to be able to be yourself, or else you can’t resolve issues. Say what’s on your mind. Conflicts usually come about because of miscommunication, so communicate your expectations and feelings clearly.

Zull: To pick up on that, expectations of the friendship are important too. Most students don’t verbalise what they expect from each other in a friendship. Do we share notes, or don’t we? Do we talk about family, or do we not? At least get that cleared up, so you won’t have conflicts to start with. Also, friendly facades get tiring and only strain relationships further, because every time you see them you have to pretend and you start linking them to a negative feeling. As much as you hope that the other person won’t feel it, they can tell how honest you’re being, and suspect some ulterior motive – so it could work against you.

P: What about those who aren’t as sociable? How do they fit in – especially if they’re actually alright with it?

Mei Hui: Some people are just more comfortable with close friends, and just because someone doesn’t have friends in your class doesn’t mean that they don’t have friends outside of those circles. Some people may need just a few friends and feel that’s sufficient. It’s about respect for anyone who wishes to opt out of socialising. If they’re not comfortable doing that, it’s their decision. You need two hands to shake and if the other person doesn’t want to shake it, then you’ll have to leave it at that. The important thing is to just make sure you don’t isolate anyone, and give everyone a chance.

Zull: We have to stop labelling introversion as anti-social behaviour — these people may not be as participative for personal reasons. Maybe socialising saps their energy, or they need to be alone to recharge, or they prefer interaction with smaller groups of people. Just keep an open channel so they have people they can reach out to when the time is right.


P: What if you’re always playing the same role in your friendships, and you’re uncomfortable with it?

Mei Hui: It’s an indicator of what you’re good at doing. What do your friends think of you? Why do they come to you? If you’re always the comforter they come to for advice, it may be a sign you would make a good counsellor! So look at the friends around you, and figure out what role you play – that way you can better understand what you’re good at doing .

Of course, you can’t always be the giver without getting anything back. If you’re uncomfortable always giving with nobody else willing to act as the giver to you – solving it depends on how assertive you’re willing to be, to say, “Look, I need some space, I can’t listen to your problems all the time,” and set the boundaries.

P: But society seems to shame people who are not nice to others, and they are made to feel guilty. So how do we establish clearer boundaries?

Zull: I don’t think it’s as simple as “I don’t want to do it, goodbye.” It would be good to explain to them why you have decided not to help, why you’re setting those boundaries for yourself; and with that they can better understand why you’re in that position in the first place. Don’t just say “No, I don’t want to talk to you, talk to my hand,”, or people might think that you’re rude.

Mei Hui: It’s important that you set boundaries too; you can’t be saying yes to every favour that everybody asks of you as you won’t have any time for yourself. It’s about protecting yourself as well. Give a good explanation, I’m sure your friend will understand your circumstances. Then again, if you’ve already prioritised certain things and you know that this friend is not someone you want to put in the effort and energy for, you need to make it clear to the person. If you’ve already decided on certain goals, like being on the Dean’s List or getting a scholarship, you need to tell the other person that you don’t have time for certain things in your life, and they just have to respect your decision.

Zull: At the end of the day, if the person can’t accept it even after your explanation, and chooses to break up the friendship, then it’s probably not worth having the friendship in the first place.

P: What if you’re in this very close group of friends, and everyone is close to each other, but you fall out with just one person in that group?

Zull: As adults we also struggle with things like that. Sometimes you and your boyfriend/girlfriend also share the same group of friends, and when you break up it’ll be very awkward. It’s something you have to learn to manage, especially if the rest of the relationships are important to you and you want to maintain them.

Mei Hui: If you have a true friend within that group of friends, you’ll find find some way of staying friends with them even if you’re not in that clique. True friendships are those that can stand the test of time, and last through all of these difficulties. If your friend can’t get past the fact that you’re no longer part of the clique, and doesn’t go out of her way to make time for you, then you know that this person is really not that close after all.

Zull: In fact, I’ve known all my close friends since secondary school, and we’ve literally watched each other grow up. We go through phases of life, but because those relationships are so important, they stood the test of time. Just 2 or 3 years ago I re-connected with my best friend from secondary school through Facebook, and it was as if we never separated. Those are the friendships that I treasure and cherish.

Mei Hui: It’s actually very interesting; Sumiko Tan’s (editor of Home section of the Straits Times) current husband was her ex-boyfriend from JC, and they picked up their relationship again after all those years. Close relationships often don’t change a lot over time, unless that person has done a 180 degree turnabout and become a different person. Otherwise, the things that made you friends with the person and attracted you in the first place will probably still be there after all this time has passed.

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