Marks My Words: Meals with friends

Feb. 24, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

Marks My Words: Meals with friendsI’ve seen it more and more lately, but I don’t think the phenomenon is at all recent. I’d imagine that, for thousands of years, mankind has both eaten lunch and suggested things that would never occur. The intersection of these events is, of course, the lunch-that-won’t-happen.


It begins enthusiastically enough. You’re in a public place — fidgeting in the line at Coupa Café or loitering outside the doors of Wallenberg — and you witness the following: two individuals happen to encounter one another. They aren’t best friends, they obviously didn’t plan to run into each other, but they’re clearly somewhat happy that it happened. Sometimes they hug. Conversation is excited, at least for the first few moments, but it quickly fades. Then there’s only one thing left to say.


“We should get lunch sometime!”


And it’s not just lunch. It can be anything from “catch up” to “grab coffee” to, in particularly ambitious cases, “get dinner.” The suggested act is usually accompanied by some semblance either of urgency or important recommendation: “we need to catch up” or “we should grab coffee.”


Now, how often do you think those two people actually follow up on their plans?


My guess is not very often.


I don’t mean to suggest that proposing the lunch-that-never-happens is a signal of malicious intent. It really seems unlikely that someone would consciously propose such an outing just to keep you anxiously waiting for the invite. Or that you want to punish some ungrateful friend by putting coffee on the metaphorical table, only to blow off your friend by never following up with your offer.


No, no, reader, I don’t think you are doing it out of spite. The forces that push us to suggest the lunch-that-won’t-happen are far deeper and more complex.


As one example, proposing the lunch-that-won’t-happen is the easiest way to avoid saying goodbye. Say your semi-friend will depart to spend next quarter abroad in some exotic, enormously fun city (or Oxford). You won’t see her for a long time, but you don’t necessarily see her that frequently on campus either. You should say goodbye before she leaves, right? And then one day you bump into her outside Green Library. You’re both tired and in a hurry, so this seems like an inappropriate setting for any kind of sentimental farewell.


Instead, you keep the option of saying goodbye alive. You can have a real goodbye over lunch — whenever it may be — and so you propose the lunch date. When lunch never happens, you never have to say goodbye; suddenly your friend is across the Atlantic, and you didn’t have to worry about a thing.


The lunch-that-won’t-happen is, similarly, the easiest way to not have to catch up with said friend once she returns with a faux-British accent. You’ve watched her endless stream of uploaded photos and vaguely followed her blog, but you’re not particularly dying to find out the narrated details.


And suddenly Spring Quarter has hardly begun when you bump into her at Olive’s. “We should get lunch so I can hear about Oxford!” you say, honestly meaning it in the moment. You both go your separate ways, and the amorphous plan is gone as quickly as the coffee you just bought.


Again, your intentions are good. It usually would be great to catch up or get lunch with so-and-so. But we get caught up in things like classes, extracurriculars and our better friends. With only so many hours in a day, a lunch can be hard to squeeze into our jam-packed schedules.


I won’t sit here and pretend that I’ve never proposed a meal that is bound not to happen. I’m as guilty as the next person. Still, we can all admit: a culture of meals, dates and catch-up sessions that are fated never to materialize can’t be very good. For one thing, it means that people will learn not to take you seriously. After you’ve told someone for the third time that the two of you “should get lunch,” that person may stop believing you, and your loss of credibility will only worsen your semi-friendship from there.


Instead, we can focus more on not saying the words when we know they may be devoid of meaning. If you don’t want to get lunch with someone, you don’t have to say it. And when you run into someone who you really, truly want to have lunch with, don’t let the conversation end with the mere suggestion. “Are you free on Thursday?” is the best follow-up anyone can hope to hear.


Miriam thinks you should get lunch with her. Set something up with her at melloram “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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