To Speak or Not to Speak? – The Friendship Conundrum

By Angus Yip (18A01A)

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, main character Elizabeth Bennet finds herself between a rock and a hard place when her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, agrees to marry her dull, senseless uncle. On one hand, she fears that Charlotte’s desire to have a family will jeopardise her future happiness; on the other hand, she finds herself unable to find the courage to tell Charlotte her true thoughts.

Austen explains how Elizabeth’s dilemma leads to a shift in the dynamics of their friendship: “Between Elizabeth and Charlotte there was a restraint which kept them mutually silent on the subject; and Elizabeth felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again.” Even after Charlotte gets married and the two of them write to each other, “Elizabeth could never address her without feeling that all the comfort of intimacy was over.”

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Charlotte (Claudie Blakley, left) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, right) in the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (Image credits)

We’ve all experienced it before: that moment when you find yourself unsure of whether or not to tell your friend something. More often than not, you’re afraid because you feel that you could offend them by saying these things.

It’s easy to offer someone your opinion regarding things that you know wouldn’t offend them. For example, if they haven’t been doing very well in school, then perhaps they should consider tuition for a particular subject, or maybe they need a more structured timetable at home. But with other things, we perceive it as difficult to tread the fine line between concern and offence, and struggle to decide on the right words to say to avoid making it seem like we are disregarding their feelings and being offensive.

I’ve found myself a victim of this too – there have been numerous times when I wanted to tell a friend of mine that they were treating someone unduly harshly, and that their behaviour was, honestly put, rather mean. However, I found myself unable to decide on the appropriate words to use, and eventually chose not to say anything. I thought I was alone in this, but a chat with my friends revealed that many of them have also experienced such anxieties before.

When we think about whether or not to say anything, we usually have good intentions in mind. After all, it’s because we see stakes involved that we find ourselves struggling to decide on what to do, a testament to how much you treasure this friendship. And if you are planning to say something that truly has malicious intent, the word “friendship” shouldn’t even be used. The very fact that we are considering saying something is a reflection that we care.

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The very fact that we are considering saying something is a reflection that we care. (Image credits)

If you’ve misunderstood something, then speaking up allows the other party an opportunity to explain their true intentions. Even if they do indeed find what you say offensive, it does allow both parties to reflect and consider if such words were indeed true or if one party was being insensitive. Even if the friendship does end, at least you chose to do something instead of sitting by and watch your friend continue to act in that manner.

That being said, many of us, myself included, find simply saying nothing the easier option. Choosing to speak requires a great deal of courage that is difficult to muster. Furthermore, we could simply be thinking too much – could all this be our fault? Will speaking out reveal how much trust is absent from our friendship? Is it worth it when such behaviour probably won’t last anyway? Hypothetical situations of our friends’ aghast reactions also abound, adding a further layer of doubt.

Of course, these fears aren’t completely unfounded. Telling someone something they could feel offended about could suggest some kind of lack of trust. In a world where our self-worth is very much dependent on what others think of you, the risk of incurring someone’s wrath, especially someone you know, is rightfully daunting. This makes our fear an insurmountable obstacle that threatens to suffocate us the moment we think that speaking up might be the better option.

However, I argue that choosing not to speak up is the worse option here. To choose not to say anything is like simply sweeping all your unwanted things under the table. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Eventually, such rubbish will accumulate and threaten to spill out to the rest of our room.

Similarly, once we choose not to say anything, perceptions are likely to insidiously snowball into something more drastic. Whenever our friends do something, it’s easy for us to identify the same problem that we perceived earlier. Then, it’s likely that we start feeling more and more discomfort towards our friend for acting in a manner that perturbs us. This could eventually manifest into outright disdain, where we only notice the disturbing things others are doing, and not any of the other meaningful things.

Dismiss this as confirmation bias if you wish to, but we can’t have expected anything different – if you didn’t tell them anything, how would they know what you feel? We can, of course, hold out the hope that the friend has changed the behaviour you find unsettling, but that’s unlikely without some kind of communication.

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The tone may be light-hearted, but beneath lies a very serious friendship filled with trust. (Image credits)

This is how relationships end — when friends become “frenemies”; when mistrust and ill will come to define our relationships. Even if things don’t come to that stage, our unwillingness to say anything has created a rift in an otherwise smooth friendship. And even if we forget about things now, it’s likely that our thoughts will resurface eventually. Even if the rift doesn’t widen, it won’t patch itself up either.

I do not dispute the belief that ending some friendships is the better option for both parties when irrevocable disagreements have risen, for it is meaningless to maintain a friendship where both parties fundamentally disagree. However, if we have a chance to change things before that stage is reached, and if we treasure this friendship, we should do something.

Author Hanya Yanagihara attempts to elucidate in her book, A Little Life, what the crux of a true friendship is: “the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are —  not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving — and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad — or good — it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all.”

Indeed, the hallmark of a good friendship isn’t when we have to actively filter out what we should and should not say. Friendship shouldn’t be a chess game, and we shouldn’t have to be the crafty, tactical, mind-reading genius who has to outsmart the other player by predicting his every move.

As long as we know that we have good intentions when we choose to discuss something with our friends, there should be no reason to worry. Yes, we can and we should be concerned about how to put things in a gentle manner that reveals our intentions, but I think we shouldn’t have to fret about whether it’s wrong to speak up, because it isn’t. It’s definitely possible to be honest without being brutal, and what we should focus on is how we can set out to achieve this. Many friends do drift apart at some point, but let it not be because of something you regret for not doing anything about.

So, I implore you to take the first step in choosing to speak! This is the choice that requires courage, but is also the one that I believe is the far better one. It’s when we know that we can say what we want to, and that others will understand the good intentions we’re coming from, that the fire of friendship can be truly kindled.

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