Cole says friendships define people

by Deborah Bernstein | 5/7/98 5:00am

Anthropologist Johnnetta Cole, one of the College's Spring term Montgomery Fellows, told an audience of more than 100 students and faculty members yesterday that "who is friends with whom says so much about each of us" and about society as a whole.

Cole, the former president of Spelman College, spoke in 105 Dartmouth Hall about her current intellectual interest, "cross-difference friendships," relationships which involve interaction between people of different gender, race, religion or other backgrounds.

She defined friendship itself as an informal relationship not based on kinship or contracts, but on common interests. "A friend is someone who's got you on his or her mind all the time," she said.

Due to the "deep divisions of our society," relationships that transcend social or cultural groups are not common, Cole said.

She said the racial and economic divides in the country are widening, making friendships that cross these lines more difficult.

Minorities suffer disproportionately, and this suffering will increase if society continues abolishing affirmative action and practicing bigotry, she said.

Because of divisions, she asked, "is it any wonder friendships that cross lines of difference are in short supply?"

Cole said cross-difference relationships are challenging. "It takes a lot to be a friend across difference," she said.

But these relationships can be intensely rewarding. "My cross-difference relationships are accessible to me through human empathy," Cole said. "They allow me to more fully understand my own slice of American culture."

"My friends and I are often making the rules up as we go," she continued.

Some cross-difference friendships that apply to college students especially include platonic friendships between the same sex and the opposite sex.

Both men and women are looking for intimacy in their platonic relationships, Cole said, but they define that intimacy differently.

Men are looking for "somebody who 'likes to do the same things I like to do,'" Cole said. "For women it's 'just talking with someone who feels the same way I do.'"

Citing the popularity of testimonies to friendship in film, non-fiction and fiction, Cole told audience members to appreciate their friendships.

"I would say to you to take notes about what you're going to say about your Dartmouth friends some 70 years from now," Cole said.

She said researchers often overlook platonic friendships between the sexes, and these relationships become more difficult after college, she said. After college, people face three problems: how to tell if a friend's actions are friendly or romantic, what to tell a romantic partner about a platonic friendship and how to approach a friendship with a married co-worker.

Although affinity housing on college campuses often brings together people of similar cultures or backgrounds, Cole said she supports it.

But she said it is crucial for those students in affinity housing to venture beyond that social setting. Without that expansion, students will not find personal or professional peace, Cole said.

Cole will be at the College until the end of May. Her visit is made possible by the Montgomery Endowment, a fund established by Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Montgomery '25 to enable outstanding figures in both the academic and non-academic world to visit the College and interact with students.