Finding Friendship in Prickly People


By Aya Okaniwa

Graphic by Clare Cho

My willingness to socialize is contingent on how approachable I find the people in question. Are they as timid as I am? Do we enjoy the same things? Would we get along? I fear the awkwardness of first interactions, yet, at the same time, I crave the warmth of friendship. I just never know how to talk.

On June 26, the first day of my biomedical research internship, the only thing I did know was that I was going to be trapped with the same people for three weeks. I had two choices: make friends or wallow in my loneliness.

With the majority of the program consisting of group work — infamous for inherently requiring socialization — I figured the most reasonable first step would be talking to my lab partners. With our actual instructor not arriving until the next day, the substitutes organized a simple three-person lab. 

I knew what my goal was, but I could hardly swallow the lump in my throat — I didn’t know these people. How are we supposed to just work together right off the bat? How am I supposed to act or react? Should I make conversation or would they rather concentrate? No one made greetings, so I just maintained my silence. The closest I got to speaking was running through small talk in my head. 

 Suddenly, the uneasy but delicate air shattered when one of my lab partners, Victoria, began an absolute tirade about the activity, straight in the poor instructor’s face. My chest tightened, and I bit my lip with embarrassment. It was only the first day, yet my lab partner might have already gotten our whole group in the camp staff’s bad graces. And she kept at it: chucking pens at other students, clicking her tongue through the instructor’s lectures and picking fruitless arguments with colleagues. I was obligated to stay next to her as her partner, but I grew concerned that others may think my opinions aligned with hers.

How could I get along with someone who kept going against my principles? How could I make peace with someone who could target me with criticism next? How could someone who can’t speak up work with someone who only speaks their mind?

So I turned my back on her. Despite the guilt gnawing away, I attempted to befriend only the other girl in our group. I did that, despite knowing Victoria was also my partner. I did that, ignoring the fact that she was a human too — one who, despite her attitude, was still emotion-reading and sensitive. So I feared that she’d feel isolated or bullied, but how would I know if she’d rather be alone? 

This willingness to exclude Victoria had come from a fear of rejection. If she’d rather spend time by herself, I’d only be bothering her with the false heroism of saving her from loneliness, wouldn’t I? My extended hand wouldn’t be of altruism; it would just be me making myself feel better. 

Upon finally realizing that I was assuming she’d be as meek as I was, guilt assailed me. To not befriend her was the same as purposefully isolating her, for Victoria was stuck with me and my new friend for the rest of the program. I was disgusted at my selfishness in almost isolating a younger girl, for letting my overthinking blind me from making a rational decision.

So to lighten up the sour mood, I attempted — and failed terribly — to make a couple jokes. Awkward chuckles filled the gap between my group mates and me. 

Thankfully, my horrendous tries at fixing the atmosphere weren’t complete failures. Victoria stopped crossing her arms and made jokes as well — except they were jests targeting the professor. Unable to confront her unsympathetic perspective, the older girl and I could only force an awkward smile and a light giggle. 

Somehow, I was able to continue the conversation, steering away from the negativity of the situation we were in. Cynicism may say that human motivation is driven primarily by anger or spite, but only alacrity could save us now. So I went forward with all the patience and kindness I still had to muster.

Engaging in anything with the girl was a gamble, but I’d finally turned the fruit of my labor. She began mellowing out upon my extension of friendship, and she had a story too. 

Her short temper and hot attitude had only been armor — it wasn’t formidability, but fortification. A mirror of my own insecurities, the girl had been so tough just to survive — through the uncharted waters of both the program’s competitiveness and its inherent socialization with intimidating partners. It was only when warmth hit her shell that the stone crumbled away. 

How strange it is that who we thought were so different are actually the same.

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