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“Ew.” “I hate you.” “Shut up.” These are some of the heartfelt compliments my friends and I have paid each other recently, because we just love each other so much. While it may seem like we’re all just terrible people, our roasts and jibes are truly all out of love.
So if we love each other so much, why don’t we just say it? Why do we have to hide behind vomit emojis and unflattering imitations of each other? Why are we so mean?
Because love is embarrassing. Think of someone you hold dear in your heart. Imagine looking deep into their eyes and telling them completely genuinely that you love them and that they make your life better. Ugh. I don’t even like thinking about it. Now imagine sending them a video of a newborn foal falling over at 2 a.m. with the caption “haha it’s u u clumsy foo(a)l.” Better?
Of course that’s better! We are emotionally stunted, love-starved people. We never heard “I love you” enough as children and internalized that as a reflection of our own self-worth, or we were socialized into thinking any display of emotion is a display of weakness, or we grew up with a Hollywood conception of capital-L Love as too big for day-to-day life. Whatever the reason, we all feel love, this fondness and admiration for other people in our lives, but we can’t quite verbalize it without cringing.
On the flip side, others’ love is often too much of a burden to bear. How am I supposed to react if you tell me I’m a good person or that you like spending time with me? I don’t even think I’m a good person worth spending time with. But if you tell me I’m a blight on humanity and my brain cells are like lemmings leading each other off a cliff, we can have some good banter about which one of us is more trash.
Kindness is too nerve-wracking, and cordiality too impersonal. So all that’s left is to go in the opposite direction, into meanness, and hope that the other person picks up what we’re putting down. When we’re playfully mean to each other, what we’re really saying is: I love you. And I know you know it too. But because neither of us have the emotional capacity to acknowledge how much we mean to each other, I’m going to make fun of you. And you’ll know what I mean, because you’re just as messed up as me.
In this dynamic, making fun of your friends and getting made fun of in turn is actually the peak of friendship. You’re only mean to your friends after you pass the polite small talk phase and reach a deeper stage of friendship. I wouldn’t tell a new friend who made a minor mistake to “stop drinking stupid juice,” but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that to the friend who grew up with me and has known me for years. And there’s a difference between being called “bitch” by a hostile stranger on the street and being called “bitch” by your best friend. The meanness needs to be well-intentioned and balanced on both sides; otherwise, you’re just in an emotionally abusive relationship.
When you do know someone well enough, though, you’re not being mean to them for the sake of being mean, but to emphasize the underlying depths of your relationship that you can’t even begin to verbalize your appreciation for. When my girlfriend and I threaten to break up with each other over bad jokes, we’re really demonstrating the strength of our relationship, because obviously it’s going to take more than a handful of stupid puns to force us apart. We’re mean to each other because we know our relationship can take it.
In the majority of our lives, we’re nice people — we swear. But with our friends, we can be a little mean. We know we don’t intend to hurt each other, we know our friendship is stronger than any barb we can throw out, and we know we love each other. Being mean is just our emotionally stunted, love-starved way of showing it.
Christina M. Xiao ’24 is a Crimson Editorial comper in Mather House.
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