When relationships are commodified, can friendship survive? This old, plaintive question has not lost any of its urgency. Once we meet and greet our fellow humans our interactions are quickly transformed into the transactional because that is the context within which they function. To be with our friends, to spend time with them, to engage in all manner of social interactions often requires money. We spend money on our friends, they spend money on us; perhaps we consume each others’ purchased goods; together, we consume this society’s various offerings–art, culture, sports, entertainment–all needing to be purchased for. Every ‘hang-out session’ needs to be paid for–because, let’s face it, we don’t just go on aimless walks with friends. (The walk in the park with a friend is, I think, a rare indulgence these days.) We cannot afford to be friends with some people; their tastes are too expensive. Some people cannot afford to be friends with us; our tastes are too expensive. (In my graduate school years, there were friends whose dinner invitations I always turned down; they would pick restaurants which I could not afford. And indeed, their failure to recognize my financial situation, by way of their oblivious invitations, never failed to anger me for their insensitivity.)
So accusations of failures of generosity are, in a society like ours, underwritten by a particular urgency; the pinch of the tightening belt all too often animates the anger with which we lash out at those who would abuse our beneficence. A friend who lightens your wallet excessively or who does not lighten his in turn for you is no friend. For we are keenly aware that this relationship seems to have impoverished us in this society’s most crucial reckoning of our worth: our bank balance. We struggle to find the right balance between being a miser and a spendthrift in our relationships with our friends; they struggle accordingly. Indeed, those supposed purveyors of unconditional love, parents, often find themselves hurling accusations of ingratitude at their children: “Do you have any fucking idea how much money I spent on your goddamned college education?” (One friend confided to me that he couldn’t wait for his kids to move out of his house so that he could start spending his money on himself. He groaned as he said this, because he knew, like I did, that matters were not so simple, that his children could, and would, continue to make both emotional and financial demands on him.)
The need to balance the budget makes accountants out of all of us, even when interacting with loved ones. It casts a very particular interpretive lens over actions and words, causing us to evaluate and judge accordingly. That forgetful friend of yours, the one who forgets to reciprocate the coffee you bought for him, the one who forgot to offer to pay for the gas when you gave him a ride? He doesn’t appear innocently absent-minded anymore. All too easily, he’s easily transformed into a malevolent destroyer of your financial future. (I exaggerate but you catch my drift.)
The converse aspect of the situation described above is that relationships that start off as transactional have little chance of blossoming into friendships. On that more, anon.