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March 25, 2007
Laying foundation for friendship the old-fashioned way

By Amanda Beck

My grandmother's recipe for friendship is simple: Take the time. Pay your way. Be honest. Be there. Let special people know they're special. And repeat. Forever.

This was the biggest part of my education in social grace. As a child, I spent long summers with my grandparents in Scottsbluff, Neb., a town of 15,000 set amid the cattle pastures of the high plains. This is the land of cloth napkins and wrapping paper. Of charity clubs and picnics. Here, you call to say thank you after a dinner party. And you meet birth, death, and major holidays with a gift, often edible.

In this place where farmers and ranchers work hard for what they have, gifts come with a sense of sacrifice. Mrs. Osborn doesn't spend $8 on peanut brittle at the store. Instead, she makes it herself -- spreading it on a marble slab, pulling it into wire-thin pieces, then chilling it, breaking it and wrapping it for you. As a child, I opened her green cellophane packages, and the aroma of baked peanuts filled me with love and belonging. Offering a piece to my grandmother, I'd think: This is how it should be always.

Neither of us grasped that, even then, her gift was almost out of date or that my desire to preserve such emotions would, two decades later, turn me into the last 1950s hostess. Now in my 20s, I feel like something of a social anachronism. I am left sending social signals my peers don't understand, like a satellite broadcasting, "Hello. We come in peace," to the lifeless reaches of space.

Other children did not spend their summers with a slew of Nebraskan septuagenarians, but for me, there was little choice: My mother was killed in a plane crash when I was 2 and, during the school year, I lived alone with my father. He was a busy military physician whose work regularly moved us to a new base in another state. Thus, the summers with my mother's parents were a welcome constant, and while other kids went to the beach or the ballpark, I went to dinner parties.

My grandparents passed me around like a party favor. After dining, we would play brain-teaser games with their friends or write a limerick in honor of our host. What I loved was the innocence of these affairs. My grandparents didn't seem old to me: They seemed fun. Sure, I knew other kids were playing video games, but I was perfectly content to pass the hors d'oeuvres.

I was also very conscious of something else: the sinews of friendship. These evenings were more than dinner. They were the opening moves in a social dance of friendship. The next step would be a phone call or a return invitation, some quid pro quo. My grandmother's relationships were built with thought and purpose, as if she were managing diplomatic ties with another nation. The first delivery of peanut brittle, you see, was both a kind gift and an entree.

Unlike my father, who had little time for my social life or his, my grandparents were nestled in a connective web that offered companionship and security. When self-reliance wasn't enough, their friends were on hand to help with daily matters and grave concerns. These were the men who looked at the maps while my grandfather searched for the wreckage of my mother's plane; in those terrible days, these were the friends who knelt in prayer with my grandmother.

These are what sociologists call core ties -- not mere acquaintances but those intimates who form a security blanket around you. "The closer and stronger our tie with someone, the broader the scope of their support for us and the greater the likelihood that they will provide major help in a crisis," sociologist Miller McPherson wrote recently in American Sociological Review.

His research shows, however, that the number of core ties among Americans began to plummet about 20 years ago and is now at an all-time low. While my grandparents have numerous intimate friends, the average American is now likely to name his spouse and perhaps only one other person. One in 4 people can name no one at all.

This is not surprising. In a country where work is both less secure and more demanding of our time, we do not pursue deep social connections with my grandmother's deliberation. Yet core ties are more than a quaint convenience. Numerous medical studies have linked them to lower rates of stress, heart attack and mental illness. The elderly are now found to commit suicide at higher rates than ever -- most often when they live alone. In short, social isolation is a public health concern, and though this crisis could be solved, it is a lifestyle choice that most Americans seem unwilling to make, like eating right or exercising.

As a motherless child drifting between communities, I acutely felt the danger of solitude. There were times when my father and I couldn't count on anyone, when our social net was as thin as the fast-food wrappers in our trash can. Little wonder that I envied my grandparents and decided that, when it was my turn, I would not be part of these lonely statistics. Instead, I would do as my grandmother taught me and create a world like hers. I would write thank-you notes and condolence cards. I would take the time. Be friendly. Be there.

Recently, though, I've stumbled upon a problem: Much of my 1950s protocol is lost on my peers. I dutifully follow my grandmother's rules, but no one is there to reciprocate. It's as if I've become the last apron-wearing housewife, stranded in the 21st century.

My peers, you see, do not practice writing toasts or limericks after dinner. For them, a party is a keg and 10 people dancing in a gyrating, sweaty circle. A cloth napkin is just another piece of laundry. And an RSVP flies in the face of a generation whose mantra could be: We're keeping our options open.

Yet after all those summers in Nebraska, I have been educated to build friendships with this deliberate protocol. In my mind, if you want the core ties, you begin with the dinners. And as a gesture of thoughtfulness, these meals are best served with a centerpiece and an icebreaker -- perhaps naming the evening's mystery guest?

I admit this creates comical scenes. There was the New Year's Eve party when none of my friends, bless their hearts, seemed to understand what fun it would be for us to cook a bacon-and-eggs breakfast or play Boggle at 2 a.m. They just wanted to go to a rave. There were also the preparations for my 21st birthday party, when I began planning our dinner conversation in advance and became evermore distressed as I rearranged the place-cards -- note place-cards -- again and again. Finally, my roommate Tanya stepped in. "Amanda, relax. We don't notice these things," she said. Confused, I looked back: Don't notice what?

Perhaps by now you are surprised to hear that I actually do have a few friends. Yes, even me. Even my overzealous hosting hasn't driven all of them away. I doubt the cloth napkins have much to do with that, but I do believe the faithful birthday calls play a positive role. I also think it helps not to refuse dinner invitations and to arrive, always, with something in your hands -- a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates.

Because if my grandmother's generation had one thing right, it was their purposefulness. They understood that friendships are living things that must be nurtured. It may not matter whether your affection is expressed with a package of peanut brittle or a daily instant message, but core ties don't happen by themselves. You have to maintain them.

This advice, of course, runs counter to a generation that is suspicious of commitment. We are the children of instant gratification, working parents and nursing-home relatives, and I suppose, while we are young and in school, friendship happens easily for us. However, that won't last forever. If we are to enjoy the benefits of core ties, we must accept that they are the fruit of an investment.

They are bred between people who share not only laughter but also history. These are the friends who have really seen your warts and still like you enough to make the promise: I'll be there.

When it comes to a social network, we'll know years from now whether my approach has worked, but I can tell you this:

Last Christmas, I threw a fondue party and was surrounded by friends. Many of them were college buddies I've known for 10 years now. I'm fairly sure that they did not need the matching place settings to have a good time, but they were sweet to accept this as part of who I am and to know that it was my pleasure to do it for them. After we finally hugged goodbye, I gathered the napkin rings, relaxed in the candlelight, and couldn't help thinking: This is how it should be always.

Amanda Beck is a student in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a reader of Miss Manners' social etiquette column.

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