At a time when their friendship had become tenuous, a young actress named Esme Wynne and a 14-year-old Noel Coward committed to each other as friends by drafting a set of Rules of Palship. In so doing, the two friends created a contract under which all aspects of their friendship would be governed.
The rules are sensible and pragmatic, ensuring each party goes to visit the other in equal amounts, clarifies all rumors directly with the other before believing them, and allows no other party to get involved in or adversely affect such Palship. Perhaps it seems clinical, even cold to have a friendship governed by a contract (and we all know that Friendship Contracts can go terribly, terribly wrong); but to see two friends face adversity not by leaving each other or distancing themselves from each other, but instead, by explicitly identifying their trigger points and making an equal commitment to making the relationship work, seems positive–even if uniquely.
As someone who reviews and drafts contracts for a living, I was both surprised and tickled (that’s right, tickled) that the Rules are drafted so formally, especially considering such young people wrote them. Not only do they define the term “PALSHIP” and refer to it regularly throughout the document, but they provide themselves with a termination right (“A week or a fortnight may be taken to think things over before abolishing PALSHIP”) and even address amending the contract (“If any other rules are formed or thought of, they must be added (with the consent of both) at the end of this document”). This contract is legit.
Reading this list, I began to ask myself: “What are my Rules of Palship?” Thinking about this for months and months, the question splintered into a million other questions:
- Where did these rules come from: my upbringing, my existing friendships, from being broken by friends in past friendships?
- Do these rules vary from friend to friend? What are the common rules amongst all my friendships?
- Do my rules evolve over time? If so, how are my current rules different from past rules?
Day in and day out I reflected. I looked at my old friendships that are still vital and strong; I examined past friendships that didn’t work out; I considered what I think of as I continue to meet new people and form new ties.
In pursuit of my own list, I decided to reach out to several of my friends (new and old) and ask them if they had any rules and, if so, what they were. The feedback I got was wonderful. Some acknowledged they had different rules for old friendships than they did newer friends (variations in tolerance for flakiness, for example). Almost everyone mentioned “loyalty” and “trust”. Many also mentioned that time and space do not really matter when evaluating the realness of a friendship: “It is important that you don’t need to be in touch every five minutes,” one friend told me. “[True friends are] the people who you can spontaneously contact after a year and within 30 seconds [be] joking about some rubbish.”
“DO experience wonder and curiosity” one friend replied. “DON’T be an emotional vampire.”
“Be there for your friend in times of need,” wrote another, “and forgive your friend for honest mistakes…we all screw up.”
While another friend explained that his lifelong friendships can be traced back to the concerted efforts they made in their youth to try new things together, and the pact that’s extended into adulthood to get together one week every year to eat, drink, laugh, and seek each other’s advice, another friend believed the key to friendship was faith: “I liken friendship to the notion of courage. You can’t really explain what it is, but you hold the hope and blind faith that if something goes wrong, some way, somehow, you’ll fix it. No matter how painful or truthful that may be, because in the end you know it’s worth it.”
But as I considered my friends’ answers and continued to contemplate my own set of Rules, my list kept expanding and expanding until I began to realize that perhaps the purpose of the exercise was not necessarily to list out every single thing I might ask for in my friendships, but to really examine what that list says of me and my character, and if I am truthfully the kind of friend that I ask others to be for me.
If I ask for patience and understanding, do I provide it to you?
If I ask you to trust my word over all else that you hear, is my word worthy of being trusted?
Similarly, does everything on your list also apply to who you are as a friend?
I realize now that while I haven’t ended up with what I set out to clarify (a set of Rules of my own), the process taught me something much more valuable. Perhaps it’s not about being loyal, or smart or hilarious or whatever you might think would make your List (but seriously, please be hilarious). Or, truthfully, maybe it’s about all of those things, but also this: the rules of friendship aren’t fixed and they can’t be created solely by one person. They expand and breathe as they ought to in order to account for each other, life, time and circumstance, provided that at all times they are mutual and improving.
I may be losing my point here (and surely Noel’s list was for fun and I should lighten up a bit and good lord, Courtney) but, while I sought to create a list of Rules of Palship, I discovered that really one thing, best articulated by the words of another, is perhaps the only rule you need:
The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development.
I used to say, “if you will take care of me, I will take care of you.”
Now I say, “I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.”