In the past seven months, more than 7,000 people in the Washington region have died of the coronavirus. We'll hear from the friends and families of those lost about how they've coped in a time when the most basic grieving rituals are disrupted.
Big Friendship is a bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcends life phases, geography, and emotional shifts. It is large in dimension, affecting most aspects of each person’s life. It is full of meaning and resonance. A Big Friendship is reciprocal, with both parties feeling worthy of each other and willing to give of themselves in generous ways. A Big Friendship is active. Hearty. And almost always, a Big Friendship is mature. Its advanced age commands respect and predicts its ability to last far into the future.
This is how Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, hosts of the hit podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” define their decade-long bond, which began right here in Washington.
The two, known for their frank and intimate conversations, contend that a close friendship is one of the most powerful relationships a human life can contain. And yet, people rarely talk about what it takes to stay in it for the long haul.
Like a grand romance, “Big Friendship” chronicles the first time they met, the spark, the obsession, the “story of sameness” and then, the obstacles. Cross-country moves. Personality differences. Moments of alienation and hurt. The failure to communicate.
And then, the most vital piece: the decision to invest in one another, again and again.
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman join Kojo to discuss their book “Big Friendship” and what it takes to stay close to our friends during a pandemic, and beyond.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
It’s hard to remember who we were that night at Dayo’s house, before we were friends. Not only because it was a long time ago, but also because we have changed each other in countless ways, from the profound to the imperceptible. We didn’t just meet each other that night. We began the process of making each other into the people we are today. Although we’re self-confident enough to know that we would have been great if our paths had never converged, we cannot imagine what that alternate reality looks like. It’s impossible to untangle us.
This feeling of being inextricable is a hallmark of Big Friendship. As humans, we are all thoroughly shaped by the people we know and love. Day to day, our friends influence our tastes and our moods. Long term, they can also affect how we feel about our bodies, how we spend our money, and the political views we hold. We grow in response to each other, in ways both intentional and subconscious. Behind every meet-cute is an emotional origin story, one that answers a deep question. Not “How did you two meet?” but “Why did you become so deeply embedded in each other’s lives?”
“We met at a friend’s house” is the superficial narrative we tell to strangers. But our real origin story is that we met at a time in our lives when we were both a little bit lost. We were both figuring out how to set a course for where we were hoping to go. And in each other, we found someone who already understood who we wanted to be.
KOJO NNAMDIA close friendship is one of the most powerful relationships a human can experience, and yet people really talk about what it takes to stay friends for the long haul. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, hosts of the long-running podcast "Call Your Girlfriend," became friends right here in Washington. Now, a decade later, they reflect on their big friendship and what it takes to keep each other close during a pandemic and beyond. Aminatou Sow is a writer, interviewer and cultural commentator. Aminatou, thank you so much for joining us.
AMINATOU SOWThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnn Friedman is a journalist, essayist and media entrepreneur. Ann Friedman, thank you for joining us.
ANN FRIEDMANGreat to be with you.
NNAMDIAs we mentioned, together Ann and Aminatou host the long-running podcast, "Call Your Girlfriend." Their book is called "Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close." And I'm gonna call on both of you, starting with you, Ann. If you can start off by reading the definition you wrote of big friendship.
FRIEDMAN"Big friendship is a bond of great strength, force and significance that transcends life phases, geography and emotional shifts. It is large in dimension, affecting most aspects of each person's life. It is full of meaning and resonance."
SOW"A big friendship is reciprocal, with both parties feeling worthy of each other and willing to give of themselves in generous ways. A big friendship is active, hearty, and almost always, a big friendship is mature. Its advanced age commands respect and predicts its ability to last far into the future."
NNAMDIAminatou, what distinguishes a big friendship from a more typical friendship?
SOWYou know, I think that when we talk about a big friendship, we are really talking about a friendship that is active, currently. It is very much rooted into the future. It is a friendship where both people are invested in the friendship and are both opting into it every single day.
NNAMDIAnn, why did you wanna write a book about friendship?
FRIEDMANYou know, "friend" is one of these terms that can mean so many different things. And when we examined our own friendship, we really did not see a vocabulary for, you know, what to call it, first of all. You know, a term like "friend," or even "best friend," didn't quite fit what we are to each other. You know, it's not exclusive, like we're number one friends. We are just two adults in a long-running, platonic friendship, and we wanna stay in it.
NNAMDISo, I have to ask, and I know you've both been asked this a million times, but I'll ask it, anyway. How did you two meet, and what were your impressions of each other at the time? Starting with you, Aminatou.
SOWYou know, we met in Washington, D.C., actually. A mutual friend, Dayo Olopade, introduced us to each other, and she invited us to her house with the explicit intent of setting us up on a friend date. And, you know, we were both in our mid-twenties, it was a very confusing time, but here we are now.
NNAMDIAnn, how about you?
FRIEDMANYeah, I mean, I remember being very excited to meet Aminatou. Dayo had really talked her up to me. And I was not disappointed. We really had one of those rare meetings where you just click with someone and think, I really wanna know this person. I really want this person in my life.
NNAMDIAminatou, was that your response, also?
SOWOh, absolutely. I remember very distinctly that I loved everything Ann said that night. I loved the outfit she was wearing, I loved that she had a loud lipstick on. It was truly, truly a memorable night.
NNAMDIWow. I'm wondering if you might read a passage from that first meeting, starting with you, Ann.
FRIEDMAN"It's hard to remember who we were that night at Dayo's house, before we were friends. Not only because it was a long time ago, but also because we have changed each other in countless ways, from the profound to the imperceptible. We didn't just meet each other that night. We began the process of making each other into the people we are today.
FRIEDMAN"Although we're self-confident enough to know that we would have been great if our paths had never converged, we cannot imagine what that alternate reality looks like. It's impossible to untangle us."
SOW"This feeling of being inextricable is a hallmark of big friendship. As humans, we are all thoroughly shaped by the people we know and love. Day to day, our friends influence our tastes and our mood. Long-term, they can also affect how we feel about our bodies, how we spend our money, and the political views we hold.
SOW"We grow in response to each other in ways both intentional and subconscious. Behind every meet cute is an emotional origin story, one that answers a deep question. Not, 'How did you two meet,' but 'Why did you become so deeply embedded in each other's lives?'"
FRIEDMAN"'We met at a friend's house' is the superficial narrative we tell to strangers, but our real origin story is that we met at a time in our lives when we were both a little bit lost. We were both figuring out how to set a course for where we were hoping to go, and in each other, we found someone who already understood who we wanted to be."
NNAMDIWe're discussing race in so many areas of our lives now. One of you is white, the other Black. Did that shape your friendship in any way, starting with you, Ann?
FRIEDMANOh, absolutely. I mean, I think in the early days of our friendship, you know, speaking just for myself, I really clung to the idea that yes, racism and race are things that are happening out in the world and everywhere, but our friendship felt maybe kind of safe from it, somehow, or like it didn't really affect the dynamic between the two of us.
FRIEDMANAnd, you know, as we have gotten deeper into this friendship and had more direct and explicit conversations about the way that no relationship really is safe from these larger forces of the way race is perceived and the way racism exists in our society, it's been really clear that, you know, racism comes up between us all the time, and creeps into our relationship.
FRIEDMANIt affects, you know, how we're able to express ourselves to each other, it really has been at the root of some conflicts between us that initially did not seem to be about race. And these are all things that it really took writing a book together to unpack some of them.
SOWYou know, I feel, obviously, very similarly. I think that, you know, a lot of people would like to believe that they approach all of their relationships, whether it's friendship or not, by coming just as themselves. And who doesn't want that, just to be -- I just want to be Aminatou to the world. But the truth is that, you know, we live in America, in a society that is largely racist. And so of course that is also going to seep into our friendship.
NNAMDIHere now is Gail in Washington, D.C. Gail, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GAIL BROWNThank you. I'm Gail Brown, and Kojo, I love your show. I was -- it's the first time I'm on it. But I wanted to ask your thoughts about your friendship and about big friendship as if one of you got a chronic disease or dementia and wasn't able to reciprocate. In other words, how do you see it going forward, and what happens if there's a serious problem?
SOWI mean, you know, in our friendship, illness has definitely been, like, a hallmark, you know, that we have had to contend with. I myself am a cancer survivor, and I also have chronic illness. You know, I think that pretending that illness is not possible in a friendship is definitely one way that you can ruin the bond that you have. I think that it is perfectly normal, and that as a society, in general, like, we are not accommodating to that fact.
SOWSo I -- you know, that is definitely something that all big friendships struggle with. I think that the solution is to address it, and to have compassion with each other and not to pretend that it is not a possibility.
NNAMDIGail, thank you very much for your call. Ann, the early chapters of "Big Friendship" are about the spark and the obsession, and we don't often hear those words in reference to friendship. They're typically used with reference to romance. Why was it important to show the power of this relationship and the affect that it's had on both of you?
FRIEDMANOh, you know, some of the experts we interviewed pointed out that that feeling, that spark feeling, as we call it, when you meet a new person and just, like, instantly feel that connection, the baseline feeling is the same, whether it is, you know, maybe a romantic relationship that you want to pursue, or a working partnership, or, like in our case, a friendship.
FRIEDMANIt's really the meaning you make of that feeling later that determines where the relationship goes. And so, for us, that felt so true, you know? Sometimes it's not immediately clear how you want a person in your life. You just know that you're connecting. And that's something we both certainly felt, and we kind of got lucky in that what we both wanted was friendship.
FRIEDMANAnd, you know, it doesn't always go so smoothly if one person, say, wants a romance and the other person doesn't. But for us, we were both aligned in what we wanted to happen after that moment of spark, and that is also exciting.
NNAMDIAminatou, I asked the question you spoke of before. I wonder, how did you become so deeply embedded in each other's lives?
SOWOh, how much time do you have, Kojo? (laugh)
NNAMDIOnly about 15 minutes.
SOWYou know, I think --
NNAMDIBut go ahead. (laugh)
SOWYou know, I think that that is a question that we are still asking ourselves. You know, some of it is definitely there is truly, like, an element of kismet to all relationships. Like, something that you cannot really point to that is -- you know, you just get lucky in that way. The universe brings you together. But I think that concretely, there are also choices that we made.
SOWYou know, we both decided that this was going to be a relationship that we were invested in, and so we kept following up and we kept showing up. A lot of the -- some of the research that we cite in the book goes to how much time, really, you spend, and how that correlates to how you call yourselves. In the friendship there are some magic numbers: 30 hours, 50 hours, 80 and 180 hours.
SOWLike, we spent a lot of time together doing things, and sometimes not doing anything at all. I think that also making our -- you know, the rest of our community know that we were important to each other went a really long way. Like, for a long time, we attended weddings together, we would give joint gifts, and, you know, just, like, these very concrete markers that we were a unit.
NNAMDIAnn, when you lived in Washington, D.C., you were in your twenties, making far less money than you do now. How did that experience shape you and your friendship with Aminatou?
FRIEDMANYeah, I mean, I think the passage that we read about the fact that we were both searching and both still trying to figure out how to have the life we wanted is really important, you know, and does really speak to why we became close. You know, strategizing together about how we wanted to not only advance our careers, but, you know, the kind of relationships we wanted, the way we wanted to be active about expressing our values in the world. The, like, clothes we wore.
FRIEDMANI mean, all these little details are things that we shaped together. And you're right -- you know, not having a ton of money and not feeling fulfilled in our careers was part of the thing -- one of those things that bonded us early on. And it's been a real pleasure to, you know, collaborate and work side-by-side to both get closer to the things that we want from our lives, both professional and personal.
NNAMDII'm wondering if one of the things you were strategizing about was getting the heck out of D.C., because I must say, Ann -- (laugh) I must say, what you write about D.C. in this book is not entirely favorable. The city has also changed dramatically. Can you describe what the District was like at that time?
NNAMDII hit on a truth there --
FRIEDMANI mean --
NNAMDI-- didn't I? But go ahead. (laugh)
FRIEDMANWell, I think that it's also important to say that, like, you know, every city is shaped by the kind of corner that you exist in.
SOWAnd so, you know, for me, you know, my world in Washington, D.C. was, you know, this kind of young political journalist's world, which is not everybody's world in Washington, D.C., you know?
FRIEDMANAnd so I think that that's sort of an important thing to remember, is that, you know, it's easy to make sweeping statements about a whole place, but in reality, I was kind of talking about my social world, my professional world. And that is, you know, what wasn't a great fit for me. You know, I didn't want a full-time job as a political journalist for the rest of my life.
NNAMDIHow about you, Aminatou? What do you think colored your experience of the city?
SOWYou know, honestly, I had a wonderful time in D.C. I wanted to move there when I was in high school. I made it happen. But, you know, like, Ann is very correct. It is a city that, in a lot of professions, is very transient, and I did not want to work in, you know, like, adjacent to politics also for the rest of my life.
SOWSo while I made some really incredible friendships there, I think D.C. itself is, like, such a sweet, sweet, sweet city to live in, professionally, when you are not fulfilled in your 20s, it truly doesn't matter where you live. The angst is always there.
NNAMDIHere now is Gemma, with, I think, a typical kind of Washington, D.C. issue. Gemma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GEMMAHi, Aminatou. Hi, Ann. Thanks so much for being a part of this show. I'm calling from D.C., and similar to you all, I don't love my life to revolve around politics. During this current era of police brutality, Black Lives Matter is very important to me, and I have deep friendships with people for whom that's not a priority. I'm wondering if you could provide some suggestions about pushing those friends along.
NNAMDIPolitical differences in Washington, D.C., Aminatou and Ann. (laugh) What advice can you give to Gemma to maintain big friendships with people with whom she has political disagreements?
SOWWell, I think for us, one reason our friendship is so powerful and longstanding is because we do have a shared values commitment. And so even if we may disagree about the best way to approach an issue in a kind of day-to-day or week-to-week way, in general, we share, you know, a belief that, like, you know, liberation is important.
SOWLike, you know, Black Lives Matter has never been a question mark kind of situation in this friendship. And frankly, not in any of my close, close friendships. You know, and I guess I would just say that this situation, in my life, has really been determined by how close I am to someone, and do we share some of those baseline beliefs.
SOWBecause I think that, you know, it's possible for me to disagree about the means, but there are certain things that, you know, if we don't share a set of values, I think it's gonna be very hard for me to actively claim a person and keep them in my life if they have not been there very long.
SOWSo there's also this time investment. And in terms of having conversations with them, I think, you know, for me, it's a nonnegotiable to have some more overt conversations with my friends and family members about things that are important to me that, you know, I want to also be important to them.
NNAMDIHere's Thomas in Frederick, Maryland. Thomas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THOMASHello, Kojo. I have never heard the term big friendship before, but I think that's a perfect definition for my experience, growing up in Montgomery County. My best friend, AJ, growing up, we -- like, I say "met," but I guess our parents put us together when we were two. And we've been friends ever since, and I literally don't have any moment in my life where he wasn't there.
THOMASAnd I didn't even have any memories, I couldn't form memories before that time. So, it's an interesting term, and I really appreciate you guys talking about it. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Indeed, Aminatou, this book isn't just about yours and Ann's experience with this friendship. You interview experts in this book. What did you learn here about the impact of a big friendship, or what did you learn about what the impact of a big friendship has on someone's life?
SOWOh, thank you for saying that, Kojo. You know, I think that in sharing our story, we were not doing it because we think that there's anything particularly special about our friendship. We are doing it because we want people to recognize, you know, the contours of their own relationships. And it is an invitation to a conversation.
SOWI think that what we heard over and over, whether it was from our own friends or from experts, is that so much of being a whole human being is taking into account the friendships that you have. It is just not realistic that, you know, emotionally, you can burden just your family or your romantic relationships with the things that preoccupy you.
SOWAnd so just in this very selfish way, I think that thinking about friendship as a pressure, really, like, releasing the pressure that we put on other relationships is very important. It has -- you know, there are, like, health implications to having friends, there are social and cultural implications, and it would really behoove us all as a society to take it more seriously as an institution.
NNAMDIAnn, what is "shine theory"?
FRIEDMANOh, shine theory is one of the operating principles of our friendship. It is rooted in a phrase we have said to each other many, many times, which is, "I don't shine if you don't shine." And it's simply a shorthand for showing up for a friend and investing in them the way you would invest in yourself.
FRIEDMANAnd we often said it as a reassurance. You know, like, hey, it's not asking too much for me to spend, you know, lots of hours on the phone with you trying to strategize this career issue. Or, you know, it's certainly something that I wanna do for you as a friend.
FRIEDMANAnd, you know, broader than that, it's about prioritizing collaboration over competition, and really approaching people in your life with that spirit, as opposed to seeing them as potential opponents. Thinking how can we work together so that we can each become closer to what we want.
NNAMDIAnn, we of course have to talk about the podcast, "Call Your Girlfriend." What changed when you and Aminatou became not just friends, but coworkers?
FRIEDMANOh, I mean, it is a real pleasure to work with Aminatou, let me tell you. And, in some ways, we had worked on little side projects before we started the podcast. We have always craved ways to get inside each other's heads and work together or be together in more structured ways. So, the podcast didn't really feel all that different in the beginning from, like, you know, little blogs we started together or things like that.
FRIEDMANAnd it really has provided me a new insight into, you know, how Aminatou is as a working human, like how she lives her values in that professional space. And that's really different than hearing about that stuff from a friend. It's like I get to witness it in real time and benefit from it. And so, in some ways, it's really strengthened our friendship. It's, like, allowed us this new insight into each other.
FRIEDMANAnd then in other ways it's like, you know, it is a distraction. You know, we also have a lot of work stuff that, some days, comes before the emotional stuff of our friendship. And that can also be a challenge.
NNAMDIAn earlier caller mentioned Black Lives Matter. You have not shied away from discussing race on your podcast. I wanted to play a clip from one of your more popular episodes, where you talk about Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility." Here's the clip.
SOWPeople who are not white actually talk about race all the time. It's like we're racialized people. And so I'd never realized that, like, that was not true for people who are not of beautiful colors, so it had just, like, never occurred to me.
FRIEDMANRight, the melanin-deficient are often not culturally and socially pushed to think that this is an idea that they have any kind of feeling about, whatsoever. Like, this is part of what her work is about.
NNAMDIHow have listeners responded to these conversations, Aminatou?
SOW(laugh) You know, I'd never heard that clip before that is jarring. You know, it's fascinating, because we do talk about race as it affects the both of us, but I think that the audience is not often clued into that. There is also a racial dynamic at play with how they respond. I would say that, generally, people are very receptive to this kind of conversation, because they get to eavesdrop on someone else modeling it for them.
SOWBut I think that it would not be true to say that it's always well-received, particularly for me, where I get a lot of pointed commentary anytime race is discussed on our show, even though I am not the only person discussing it.
NNAMDIHere is Elise, speaking of the long haul, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Elise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELISEHi, there. Thanks for taking my call. This book is definitely something that made me smile, and I'm excited to go out and buy it. My story is that there are four women who, we've been friends since we were 10 years old, and we're gonna be celebrating our 70th birthday this year. We've lived all over the country, sometimes all over the world, and we've managed to, you know, be there for each other, good times and bad times, and, you know, being separated by distance.
ELISEIt never has interfered with our long-term commitment and friendship. We were actually taking a really special trip this year, but we got canceled because of the COVID. But we still celebrate each other. We keep in touch on Zoom, and, you know, being friends with three women for 60 years is pretty special. There really is --
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. But that's a long haul for you. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, thank you both for joining us. This segment on friendship during the pandemic was produced by Julie Depenbrock, and our conversation about the D.C. Public Library was produced by Lauren Marco. Coming up tomorrow, what practices must be put in place before schools can reopen and how will the coronavirus impact the future of our education system?
NNAMDIIn our continuing series on education in a pandemic, we take a look at school safety with Dr. Leana Wen and Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles. Plus, are private schools better equipped to handle in-person classes? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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