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Friends and lovers?

October 23rd, 2005

Dr Petra

A new survey out this weekend has it all – ‘shocking’ findings and a ‘syndrome’ to boot.

It’s publicity for a website that helps people get in touch with old schoolfriends.

In the survey 2000 people were questioned and ‘only’ 1/3 stated friendships had ended as a result of friends becoming lovers.

Not exactly clear that one. Did those findings mean that 2/3 people who met as friends fell in love and remained that way? Or did 2/3 people just stay friends and not fall in love? Or did only 1/3 admit to friendships going wrong after trying to take the relationship up a level?

Later in the press coverage they seem to repeat the same data in a slightly different way, this time saying of the seven in ten people who took their friendship to another level, only 1/3 said that sex had destroyed their friendship.

If you’re in the mood for some math this morning why not have a go at working this one out? 2000 people polled. Calculate next what 7:10 people equals, then from that figure work out one third. That should give you the number of people out of 2000 who took a friendship onto a sexual level and then regretted it. Are you confused yet, or is it just my Sunday morning brain not working?

And also inaccurate data representation. All news stories opened with the line that ‘only’ 1/3 of the 2000 participants questioned regretted taking sex to another level. But what they were really talking about was 1/3 of 7:10 people who reported being sorry for having sex with a mate. Or something like that. Frankly the whole thing’s giving me a headache!

But the press missed all this clumsy and confusing data because if you throw a load of percentages at them it seems they’ll happily reproduce them, even if they either don’t make sense. Which explains why this nonsensical story found its way into several major newspapers who all regurgitated the press release without question.

As well as the muddled percentages reported the press coverage also discussed the ‘when Harry met Sally syndrome’ – I won’t go off on one about what a syndrome is since I’ve bleated about it enough elsewhere but needless to say when you have a PR survey you can usually rely on an invented ‘syndrome’ cropping up. This survey revealed that eight out of ten respondents were familiar with the ‘when Harry met Sally syndrome’ so clearly they’d heard of it even if it was new to the rest of us.

But that just shows the power of surveys. If I ring up 2000 people and say ‘are you familiar with the shonky survey syndrome?’ a fair proportion (I’d guess at least six out of ten) would say they had because when you ask someone something that implies they ought to know about it they’ll always say ‘yes’.

In case you’re in the minority of people apparently not aware of it, the ‘syndrome’ relates to the film ‘When Harry met Sally’. The character Harry believes that men and women can never truly be friends because sex gets in the way.

By the way, if you’re planning on inventing a syndrome it’s always good to try and have a clear visual image to go with it. Pinning made up syndromes to movies is especially good since pictures desks will be happy to oblige with a nice shot to go with your story.

According to this survey the ‘syndrome’ exists, but then they kind of contradict themselves by revealing that of the people they surveyed many had said they’d taken a friendship further and not regretted it. Or perhaps this was a deliberate ploy – to both identify the syndrome and then tell people they didn’t have to worry about it. Amazing, identifying and curing a syndrome in the space of one newspaper article!

What this ‘survey’ is really saying is ‘single? Wanting to be in a relationship? Well if you can’t meet someone try and see if a friend will go out with you. Oh and we happen to have a website where you can meet more friends or hook up with school mates, and really we’d rather you just pay and join our site but we can’t really say that so we’ll make up a survey that tells you taking a friendship a stage further won’t be a problem, and that hopefully you’ll join up and start making sexual advances to all your old friends’

Of course they put it more subtly, in the press coverage the head of their dating division explains: “If one of your closest friends is a member of the opposite sex and available, and you are looking for a partner, then this does seem the obvious place to start”

What isn’t so obvious is whether they mean your close friend is a good place to start or their website is a good place to start, but since the rest of the story is a complete muddle why split hairs now?

In case people were worried the site’s head of dating continues “It’s just as likely that if it doesn’t work out, you’ll go back to just being friends. Best-friend dating makes sense because deep friendship is at the core of any long-lasting romantic relationship.”

Now just to serious for a minute, this last bit isn’t so bad. Research on couples who’ve had long (and happy) relationships reveals that a strong friendship during their life together is what’s kept them going.

However the idea that if your relationship doesn’t work out that you’ll just go back to being friends is unlikely, unless you either didn’t like each other that much, or can be incredibly civilised about the whole thing. For most people the pain, rejection or humiliation of being rejected, not to mention the loss of a friendship can be very distressing.

What we have to think about here is the ethics of this venture. Aside from it being based on a flimsy survey, the subtext is to attract people (many of whom may be lonely or vulnerable) to try and get a new or existing friendship into a relationship. Whilst some may be lucky a larger number of people are going to be disappointed.

It’s understandable if you run a website you’ll want customers, but encouraging them not to look for friends for friendship’s sake but to find an old friend in the hope it’ll turn into a relationship, and misleading people that if it all breaks down you can still be friends is unrealistic and unfair.

Not that this will put people off, because on this occasion the PR job’s been done well. Lots of headlines, pictures and a catchy syndrome too – don’t be surprised if this doesn’t turn into some magazine articles in a few months time. And in the immediate future lots of money for this friendship website.

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