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Episode 17: Bromance

Sasha Chapin feels he doesn't have enough good male friends. And the standard approaches to male bonding make him a bit uncomfortable. So, he decides to employ the latest advances in relationship research to see if he can engineer a 'bromance.' Will it work? Or will it end up being painfully awkward?

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Transcript

TAMARA STANNERS: You decide to go to the bar after work with an acquaintance, someone you kinda know but you'd like to know better. Not in a romantic way but just as a friend. So you have a couple of drink and you talk about the weather maybe some sports, try out some of your best lame jokes and you ask them a few questions about their past. And then, you propose something a little different, to stare, unflinchingly, into each other's eyes for four whole minutes.

Will this make you best friends forever? Or will it be the most awkward experience you've ever had? Well, you're gonna find out, because that's what's happening today on Relate.

I'm Tamara Stanners and this is Relate by Zendesk. And this week's relationship is ... Well, I guess you could say it's engineered. Andy, what's happening with this one?

ANDY SHEPPARD: Do you remember a couple years ago-

TAMARA STANNERS: This is producer Andy Sheppard by the way.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Right. A couple years ago there was this New York Times modern love column where they picked up on the work of two researchers, Arthur and Elaine Aron. Anyway, this column went viral.

TAMARA STANNERS: This is the one where they suggested if you do this questionnaire that they can get people to fall in love.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, exactly. The questions are interesting. They start out very basic like questions like, "Do you wanna be famous?" Or, "When was the last time you sang to yourself?" But they move to more probing like, "Tell me about your childhood." And they get more intense and personal.

TAMARA STANNERS: Right. The idea being that sharing your innermost thoughts and your feelings and motivations is what people fall in love.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Exactly. The questions are designed to make you slowly disclose more and more about yourself. And then, over the course of the questionnaire, bam, that vulnerability and that honestly that the questions pull out sort of woos the other person, and vise versa. It had a huge impact on lots of people, including Sasha Chapin, a writer in Toronto.

SASHA CHAPIN: Yeah, I read and it was sort of a revelation to me, because the idea of engineering a relationship really appealed to me. So this idea that you could answer a series of questions, it was almost like a magic spell you were casting that would create closeness and intimacy and camaraderie. That was very appealing.

ANDY SHEPPARD: But here's the thing. Sasha didn't wanna use it for romance, he wanted to use it for bromance.

SASHA CHAPIN: I was in my late 20s, 26 I think, and I had been working a lot in various things, on my writing, and I was working full-time. I sort of woke up one summer and I was like, "Where are all my friends? I have 1.5 friends. That's not the number of friends a person should have."

TAMARA STANNERS: Is it really that hard for men to make friends?

ANDY SHEPPARD: I don't know. I don't wanna generalize but I think it's safe to say that male friendship is different. There's research out there that shows that men don't have quite as many friends as women, and often those relationships aren't as intense. But it's not that Sasha didn't want male friends, it's the opposite. It's something that was always on his mind ever since he was a kid.

SASHA CHAPIN: The idea of friendship was really strange. I watched other people do it and it was kind of like watching a plane fly, and thinking, "Well, it would be really nice to fly." I didn't feel personally equipped to pursue social relationships. But I wanted them all the time.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So Sasha was a self-described nerd, and kids were tough on him. He got bullied a lot.

SASHA CHAPIN: Yeah, I was both brash and insensitive, but also very emotional. I would do things to get people's attention. But I don't really think about whether those things were fun for other people. Like, I would play the ukulele and I learned to throw playing cards at one point, like magicians can throw playing cards. And I would throw playing cards at people.

TAMARA STANNERS: Sounds to me that he's pretty fun. But I get it. Being a kid is super hard, especially when you're a bit of a square peg.

ANDY SHEPPARD: He managed some friendships here and there.

SASHA CHAPIN: My first male friend was this guy Liam. Liam was really, really sweet, and our friendship was largely Nintendo-based. We didn't really talk about anything because kids don't really have anything to talk about, and we were into different music. But we shared Street Fighter and Mario Kart in common, which is a really good vessel for friendship for two young insecure guys.

In University I think I grew into my eccentricities a little bit. I started dating in a furtive, teenage way. And I took on sort of a persona that was acceptable to other people, which was ... I was really pretentious and full of myself, but I think in a way that was occasionally charming. I was in a literature program where a lot of people were trying to be pretentious and verbose and selfconsciously smart kids, and I fit that role pretty well I think.

ANDY SHEPPARD: And there was one good thing about being a nerdy intellectual when he got to University, Sasha started to hit it off with the ladies. His emotion and his confidence, the stuff that plagued him when he was a kid was actually quite appealing to the opposite sex.

SASHA CHAPIN: I was good at acquiring relationships, romantic relationships, if not hanging onto them. Bad at hanging onto them but good at getting girls to hang out with me for a while. And there was something very different about that because obviously romantic relationships aren't inherently competitive.

One thing that had gotten in my way a lot in terms of male friendships is we couldn't help comparing our level of success and our level of social confidence. Romantic relationships are cooperative and exploratory by nature. And I'd found it hard to attain that sort of non-judgemental love with a male friend.

TAMARA STANNERS: Okay, so now he's hoping that this fall in love questionnaire will help him find friends, male friends.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Sasha had his eye on a few, what you might call, friend candidates that he thought he could try out the questionnaire with.

SASHA CHAPIN: At the end of this process I found a guy, we can just call him Andy.

TAMARA STANNERS: It was you.

ANDY SHEPPARD: No, no, no. I would have been game. It just happens to be the pseudonym that he chose.

TAMARA STANNERS: Okay.

SASHA CHAPIN: And everything about him was appealing. I liked his style. I liked the aesthetic he presented to the world. I really liked his writing. And he had this approach to masculinity that I really identified with. I really like his approach to being alive. He's a writer and he has an Instagram and he has a Twitter. I sort of stalked him on the internet. He had a lot of pictures of him lifting weights, or pictures at the gym. I really liked them because they were sort of goofy photos. He was sort of making fun of himself for being a weight lifting dude.

I was in exactly the same position. I went to the gym a lot. I go to the gym a lot. But have never felt fully identified with dudes who bench 300 pounds and talk about lifting all the time. So we were both nerd who lifted weights. I liked that.

ANDY SHEPPARD: So all he needed to was ask him out. He found himself at the same work function and he went for it.

SASHA CHAPIN: I felt really anxious about it. I felt like I was asking a lot. But I sort of made the words leave my mouth. I said, "There's this questionnaire that was invented by a psychologist. This questionnaire apparently makes people fall in love. I want to attain a close friendship. Do you wanna do this crazy thing with me?"

TAMARA STANNERS: And?

ANDY SHEPPARD: He said yes. So Sasha chose a cocktail bar downtown. He wanted the mood to be just right, which is pretty cute. Because they're supposed to fall in friend love.

SASHA CHAPIN: My ideal friend was someone I could do anything with. I've never really had fun. I've always been kind of a workaholic. But I wanted someone I could share my writing with, someone I could talk to all the time. Basically, someone with whom I could be in a perpetual, mutual therapy session with.

ANDY SHEPPARD: And so, the date begins.

SASHA CHAPIN: It had exactly the same feeling of tension that a first date would. I sat down and I ordered a drink and everything felt like a gesture in the way that it does when you're very self conscious. The cocktail I ordered, I wondered what it would say about me. And I pulled out my phone and I looked at my phone, but I wasn't really looking at anything on my phone, I was just trying to seem like I was doing something other than anxiously waiting for Andy.

TAMARA STANNERS: I just feel so nervous for him, like first date time.

ANDY SHEPPARD: I know, me too. But Andy arrived and it actually got off to a good start.

SASHA CHAPIN: I remember he was wearing this black fluffy sweater and these think retro glasses. And he looked really excentric, but also really put together. And he was very warm, very warm.

ANDY SHEPPARD: And so, they got right into it. They started off with the more banal questions. And Sasha was pleasantly surprised that his date was opening up. They were both a bit nervous but they were both into it. And then the more intense questions started coming.

SASHA CHAPIN: There's a question; if you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? And the question is inherently scary because you're admitting that you're incomplete, you're admitting that you're not who you wanna be. I was both really worried that that would destroy the potential friendship, but at the same time I was thinking, "Well, a lot of my friendships haven't worked out so far so maybe I need to take drastic measures. Maybe it's good that this is scary and unusual."

At that moment it felt like some boundaries were broken and we were alone with each other in a world of our own saying things that we wouldn't normally say and feeling things we might normally avoid feeling.

ANDY SHEPPARD: And then, as if it couldn't get any more intense.

SASHA CHAPIN: At the end of the questionnaire there's this other stage where you make two to four minutes of unbroken eye contact with your partner. The New York Times article recommended four minutes, so we did four minutes.

It was barely describable. Throughout the animal kingdom eye contact is an intense thing. You're not supposed to stare at gorillas in the zoo because it makes them angry. Eye contact can be a display of vulnerability or a display of dominance. Sociopaths stare a lot.

When you make eye contact for that long it really breaks down a sense that you're mediating who you are, that you're presenting a version of yourself. You're just breathing, shaking, vulnerable animal. And the other person is too.

TAMARA STANNERS: Wow. How do you end a friend date like that one?

ANDY SHEPPARD: I guess, like most good dates end, they made plans to see each other again.

SASHA CHAPIN: We made plans to watch sumo wrestling because Andy's a big sumo wrestling fan.

TAMARA STANNERS: Come on. You're sure you're not the same Andy in this story?

ANDY SHEPPARD: I do love me some sumo wrestling, but now.

SASHA CHAPIN: Apparently there was some sort of significant event in the sumo world coming up shortly after our date. And then, we just said goodbye. I really hoped that we would see each other again. I really hoped that this would be the first step in developing a profound new friendship. And I walked away from the date feeling as the questionnaire promises, a great sense of intimacy and a real sense of fondness. Andy had really been revealed to me and I really like what was revealed. It's not like I was foreseeing a friendship where every time we hung out it would be a series of insane revelations about our character. I hope that it could be a combination of the stuff where we could be together and have a sense that we really knew a lot about each other's most in-most fears and beliefs. But at the same time we could just watch sumo wrestling, like a friendship that was really malleable was what I was hoping for.

Like when I was young, I had that friendship with Liam that was all about N64. I was hoping that we could both bond emotionally on a really deep level and just play N64 and hang out, maybe go to the gym together. You know? And then, unfortunately, the friendship didn't really happen. It happened in the sense that Andy and I continue to be acquaintances, and I think we have a really deep bond now, in a way. But we also don't hang out regularly, we don't see each other that much.

TAMARA STANNERS: No, that was not supposed to happen. I don't get it. I totally thought this was going to be the perfect way to get a bromance.

ANDY SHEPPARD: I know. I thought so, too. But I guess part of it was neither of them was really making a move to keep it going. And Sasha started to think that it might have something to do with his own conflicting needs.

SASHA CHAPIN: In a certain way, I prefer loneliness. I prefer the comfort of loneliness. I think I want vulnerability, but I have a conflicting set of desires where I both want vulnerability and I want to be free with somebody, but I also want to be a control freak and manage what other people think of me. And those desire are mutually exclusive. I'm hesitant to make bold proclamations about male friendship in general, but I don't think it's controversial to say that men tend to be more selfish, competitive, and private than women are. And I think there are a lot of male instincts that have to be overcome.

Yeah, I am still on the lookout for a perfect male friend. Even though I know it's contrary to some of my inclinations in the same way that you wanna be a different kind of person sometimes. You can recognize you have desires, but that those desires are also maladaptive. I have mixed feelings in the sense that I think the attributes that lead me to be lonely, like self reliance and being [serebral 00:17:57] and being a workaholic. They have positive outcomes, too. I get a lot of work done and I'm okay with being alone. But I know that eventually I won't be okay with being alone, I'll need somebody. It gives me this awareness that I'm going to have to transcend some of my desires and inhibitions to be a happy person.

TAMARA STANNERS: Sasha Chapin is a writer currently living in Toronto. Big thanks to Lilly Ames for that interview with Sasha Chapin and for helping to produce that piece. Maybe you're not gonna go out and engineer friendships with a giant questionnaire and a staring contest, but there are a lot of ways that asking good questions can improve your relationships. Check out this article on the Relate online magazine. It's called "Your 21st-century challenge. Put away the technology and ask better questions." And it gets at all the ways that good questions can lead to meaningful conversations and deeper relationships. You can find it at relate.zendesk.com.

That's it for Relate this week. Next week, you may know the contentious TV show, "13 Reasons Why," about the teenager who takes her own life, but not before leaving messages for the people who hurt her or let her down. Well, we've got a rather more uplifting story called "13 Reasons Why Not," about a group of students who've made a habit of announcing messages to the people who support them and keep them going during those tricky high school years. That's next week on Relate.

In the meantime, subscribe to Relate on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen, and that way you won't miss an episode. We've got lots more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways at relate.zendesk.com. And if you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions head over to zendesk.com for a free trial.

I'm Tamara Stanners, talk to you soon.

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