Sunday 23 October 2016

Katie Byrne: who'll be there for you?

How our friendship needs change over time

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

A new app billed as 'Tinder for Girlfriends' has received plenty of media attention over the last few weeks. For the uninitiated, Hey! VINA is about "connecting, empowering and celebrating" women. Oh, and changing the world. In case you haven't noticed, every young developer in Silicon Valley believes it is their duty to change the world…

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Anyway, Hey! VINA is like a dating app, only it's for platonic girlfriends. Women swipe left or right like they would on Tinder and, if there's mutual interest, the site suggests they meet up straight away by "grabbing" a non-committal coffee.

Many will wonder if technology is the solution or the problem here. They'll probably note that people have hundreds of Facebook friends but very few people to call upon when their car gets clamped and they need a credit card number pronto.

But that's missing the point. This app is largely for women who want to make friends that complement their lifestyle. It's an age-old problem that predates social media. "Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are," goes the saying. Show me your friends and I will tell you where you are, is much more apt.

Our oldest friendships are subject to the same peaks and troughs as the longest marriages, while whirlwind friendships aren't unlike their romantic equivalents: they tend to peak prematurely before ending suddenly. Sometimes we need friends who understand our situation; sometimes we need friends to provide a temporary escape route from our situation.

The media construct of a life-long group of female friends whose camaraderie and Cosmopolitan-drinking can weather any storm is much rarer than people realise. In most cases, female friendships are unpredictable, transient and ever-evolving.

Or non-existent. It's easy to make snap judgments about the type of women that join the Hey! VINA movement. Yet, to do so is to overlook the constantly shifting identity of the modern woman.

This is an app for women who move country as much as it is for women who move on from long-term relationships. It's for women who fall out with their friends, just as it is for women who want to fall in with new friends.

It's also an outlet for women who have discovered that in order to change their lifestyle (alcohol, drugs, etc), they have to change their friendship circle.

Crucially, it's for women who are at a different place, literally or figuratively, to their friends. At some point in every group of female friends there will be what I have come to call The Last Woman Standing. The LWS's friends have settled down and started having children, and a night out now invariably involves L-plates and penis-shaped straws.

Her friends are still there for her, just not always in the way she would like. The LWS wants to go to Electric Picnic. Her friend wants to go buggy-shopping.

The LWS wants to go on a city break. Her friend wants to go to Dundrum Town Centre. The LWS wants to try out one of those five-course tasting menus. Her friend wants to talk about her baby's first experience of eating solids. I've been this soldier and I know that you have to act fast. People talk about 'call-in-a-crisis friends'. This is exactly what you need at a time like this: new friends that you can call upon to get you through this sudden social crisis.

At times like this you're not looking for a new friend per se, rather you're looking for a license to continue living the life you led before your friends settled down.

I'd never use an app like Hey! VINA, but I've established new female friendships as spontaneously as one would swipe right on Tinder. Last Women Standing tend to push straight in with two tickets to Massive Attack and a heart-shaped emoji.

On the plus side, we can spot each other a mile off. A friend of mine recently told me that a woman she just met had asked her if she'd like to go out some time.

"Is this a date?" she asked me. "She must think I'm gay." I assured her that she was wrong. "She's just The Last Woman Standing in her group of friends," I explained.

I wonder if it's the same for the Last Man Standing? There's a similar app for men called Wolfpack, but I suspect the male of the species are a little less proactive about making new friends.

We only need to look at office dynamics. Female colleagues sitting beside one another will eventually cross the bridge between public life and private life. Relationships begin professionally but before long they'll be discussing family problems, sharing secrets and bartering body woes.

Two men can sit beside one another for years and never get beyond anything more penetrating than the saga of a missing stapler. I know a few Last Men Standing, and I feel for them. Male pride seems to further entrench their sense of isolation.

Apps like Hey! VINA might not be the solution to everyone's problem, but they at least remind us that there is a problem... and it's more common than people realise.

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