What Can You Do For Me?
Updated: Jan 9, 2018
I’d wager you’ve had this happen to you: You have a friend who you enjoy. You go out together in groups of friends; you discuss kids, jobs, politics, life. You see them at parties and weddings, and it’s always nice to catch up with each other.
And then your friend starts a business.
You get a Facebook invite to join their page. You get a group message asking you to host a party, or come to a sales pitch, or try out their product. You feel bad saying no, so you buy the cheapest item you can find in the catalog. They, however, are not pacified, but rather encouraged by your polite interest, and expect you to become a repeat customer. Eventually you either stop returning their emails, or you gently ask them to please stop sending them. It happens in the group dynamic, too. When you are out together, this friend has nothing to talk about except the product they sell. The group puts up with it for awhile, but private conversations of annoyance begin occurring behind the friend’s back, and sooner or later, they stop being invited. No matter how great the product is they are selling, no one likes to feel like they are being used.
Caveat: This is not the scenario for every person who starts a business. Some people make it a policy not to market to their friends, and some people know when to drop the subject. But I’ve seen it happen too many times to count. It’s not a new problem – I remember my mom getting fed up by people asking her to come to Tupperware and Amway parties – but it has been exacerbated by social media. Remember when Facebook was just about keeping up with old high school friends?
You might be laughing at me right about now, because I recently started a Facebook writer’s page, a new blog, plus Instagram and Twitter accounts. Yes. Yes, I did. Allow me to explain.
I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’ve had a blog for years, to which I contributed in fits and spurts. I would share my posts on Facebook, but never really tried or cared to gain a larger audience. A year and a half ago, I decided I wanted to take this writing thing more seriously, and for me, that meant writing a book. I shelved the blog while I was writing the book, which turned out to be a marketing mistake, but come on. If I wanted to write a quality book, I had to concentrate my efforts on it (alongside my efforts to serve at church, cook decent meals for my family, keep my house and clothes clean, teach 17 piano lessons a week, chauffeur my kids to their activities and much, much more). What wife and working mother has time to both write a decent quality book and keep up a blog??
Once I emerged from my book-writing cave, the blinding reality of the publishing industry smacked me in the face. This is a quote from a book on getting a piece of non-fiction work published.
“Editors and agents are attracted to authors who have this thing called ‘platform,’ especially when it comes to nonfiction authors...They’re looking for someone with visibility and authority who has proven reach to a target audience.”
Say what? I can’t just submit a query letter to an agent along with my book manuscript? I have to prove I already have an audience? And how does one go about building a platform these days? The answer: social media. Ugh. For a few days after I learned this information, I despaired. I felt I had to sell my soul just to get a book published. I did not want to be that annoying friend who is always asking you to buy her product, host a party, share her blog posts, like her tweets. I did not want to turn my friends into customers.
Ironically, my husband finds himself in a similar position to mine as he steps away from a ministry job he has held for over fourteen years, and attempts to reenter the business world. Much has changed about job searching in fourteen years, but the biggest shift is in the importance of networking. It seems like the way to do business these days is to have one foot in your current job, and one foot in your next job search, by way of Linked In. You are expected to put your best face forward (literally, in the form of professional head shots), leverage your relationships, and engage in this favor for favor dynamic among your friends.
Call us old fashioned, but there is so much about this new world of personal branding that disgusts us. And yet, in order to get what we desire (a book contract and a good job), we have to play the game.
It occurred to me last week, as I was reading Free of Me by Sharon Hodde Miller (a great book, by the way), that there are lots of people out there who don’t see it as a game. Platform building and career networking is not the means to achieve their goal, it is their goal. This is a quote from an interview between Christine Caine and Jennie Allen (Christian authors), which Sharon quotes in her book:
“People are trying to build their platform more than their character….I’ve spent more time thinking about how I can die a thousand deaths so that the character and nature of Christ can be formed in me. As I die more, God gives me greater influence. I think what we have is a generation that doesn’t want to die, but wants to have a bigger voice.”
In my brief 3-month-old foray into the world of platform building, I have found that I am joining a sea of fellow builders, most of whom have been working on their platforms long before they have anything of consequence to say. I wonder if they have turned friends into customers in their quest to gain a following. There is nothing wrong with networking to find a job, or building a platform to get a message out, but if we are not careful, we will begin to see every person in our lives, including close friends, as a link in our net, or a brick in our platform.
This way of thinking pervasive in our capitalistic culture, the church, and sadly even our friendships is called teleological or utilitarian ethics. The end justifies the means. An action is good if what it produces is good. Christians like to say we are above this pragmatism, but then we go and elect a serial adulterer for President. Oops. Sorry, that slipped out.
Anyway, our hyper-consumeristic society that loves things and uses people has caused us to see everything through the lens of usefulness. We are loyal to no one but ourselves, and as soon as someone or something no longer serves our purposes, we remove it from our lives and move on. Institutions, brands, celebrities, churches, jobs, friendships – we have commodified almost everything to some degree in service to our goals. We all do it. The sooner we open our eyes to our own complicity in this behavior, the better.
One sad consequence of our utilitarianism is an epidemic of loneliness. A Huffpost article from 2015 estimates that “one in five Americans suffers from persistent loneliness.” Think about it. If you, and everyone else in your life, is asking not, “how can I be a good friend?” but “what can I get out of this friendship?” you will always be dissatisfied in your relationships. You will feel hurt and used by your friends when they treat you like a tool to prop up their self-esteem. And you will find yourself scrolling through your social media feeds, bemoaning the fact that all your friends seem to be enjoying each other’s company while you’re stuck at home with no invitation to join in the fun. (This is a lie from the pits, by the way, but that’s another topic for another post.)
Friendships, says C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, cannot survive without mutuality. Unlike the stance of lovers, which is face to face, friends must stand shoulder to shoulder, with shared interests and passions.
“Those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any. The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends. Where the truthful answer to the question, ‘Do you see the same truth’ is, ‘I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,’ no friendship can arise…Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.”
Even though Lewis wasn’t addressing our current utilitarian thinking, he was affirming that you cannot have a healthy friendship in which one or both parties are only thinking about what they can receive from the other.
I’ve heard it said that when it comes to relating to each other, every human
wants three things – to be seen, to be heard, and to be valued. Fewer and fewer people these days have deep, nurturing friendships which meet these needs. More and more people feel overlooked rather than seen, talked to rather than heard, and used rather than valued. Let’s make a greater effort to see the Imago Dei in everyone we meet, and value them for who they are, not what they can do for us.
*This is a photo of me with 2 of my favorite fellow travelers.