Return the Volley

Sometimes my husband and I play tennis. I enjoy it most when we can get a good volley going, even if Dale usually wins the set. I’ve also played tennis with people who cannot hit the ball into the court, not my favorite. I really want a good volley with that exciting back and forth rhythm. If you’re going to play tennis, you really want a partner who can return the volley.

The goal in friendship is much the same. I want friends who can return the volley in conversation, curiosity, care. If I invite L over for a barbecue Saturday night and don’t hear back, she’s dropped ball. If I receive an invitation and forget about it without both apologizing and finding a way to remember, then I’ve dropped the ball. Now I get it, we all forget. I do, too. But if you consistently forget, if you’re consistently busy, you aren’t friendship-ping well. You’ve simply deprioritized friendship for something else.  Maybe for someone else. But dropping the ball is just another way to say “You aren’t very high priority to me.”

I can hear the excuses already, “But, I’m so busy!” Let me tell you, if someone you admired (celebrity, author, hero) asked you to RSVP for her dinner Friday night, you’d find a way to respond. Being busy is never an excuse, it simply means “I was too busy for you.” And we all know we prioritize who matters to us, even if it’s just our kids, or our spouse, or maybe just our own schedule. Good friends never say, “I was just so busy” to their close friends without accompanying it with an apology. And really good friends know an apology includes plans for how you’ll prioritize that friendship next time.

Most friendships fail because someone consistently dropped the ball. But dropping the ball isn’t the same as taking more time to get back. I have friends who need 3-5 days before they respond. But they do respond. I have other friends who take weeks or even a month before they respond. But they do respond. 

I do not have any close friends who never respond, who just drop a conversation cold. These people are not close to me because I want good friends. And just like tennis, a good friendship means you keep volleying as best you can. You don’t walk off the court and leave your friend waiting. 

But the pace of each friendship will be different because everyone’s rate of return will be different. Let me give you some examples from texting conversations. 

Some friends return responses fast, others slowly. Some friends, like in tennis, smash the ball back immediately, with lots of emoji’s and exclamation marks. That would include me 😄. Other friends write unpunctuated sentences with minimum info. This seems common for kids who grew up texting. 

There are friends whose pacing is a few hours or a few days apart. I have a friend who will only text back immediately if her phone is in her hand. Other times, she’s overwhelmed or distracted and cannot text back immediately. We all understand that. A friend’s response time doesn’t necessarily indicate the priority of our friendship.

Pacing is an indicator, but not always of closeness.  Pacing reveals how to sort your friend. More on sorting friendships here. Some friends don’t want you to respond immediately, some do.

We all know how it feels to be on the receiving end of waiting for a return text, or calling and waiting on a return call. Lately, I’ve been experiencing how difficult it is to find an electrician, or a plumber for that matter. My texts and voicemails disappearing into a black void. Friendship can feel like this, too. 

A good friend does not leave a friend waiting indefinitely. And a good friend doesn’t insist on immediate response. Remember tennis again, we don’t need perfect shots or fast shots every time. The goal is to volley. If you want your friendships to improve, choose one person you want to be better about volleying the conversation. Because in friendship, we should never have to motivate our friends to respond to us. And yet, for many of us, that’s exactly how we feel: either pressured or left hanging. 

I have a solution and it involves making a new rhythm together.  Stay tuned, because I’ll be sharing more about it next week.

The Friendship Posts


Expecting Better Friendships: Friendship Fountain, Sorting Friendships and Downsizing Friendships
What is a Friend: Balloon Friends, Companions, It is Good You Exist
The Pace of Friendship: Walk with Me, Return the Volley, Trains and Rollercoasters
Growing Friendships: Friends and Flowers, Growing a Friendship, Weeding a Friendship
Healing a Friendship: Forgiveness, The Work of Healing, The Crucial Question 


This was originally painted during a six-week cross-country trip. My boys were playing tag while we walked to our van for another day on the road. It was early morning in Savannah, Georgia and I particularly liked the shadows. I worked on the original study a few days later in the parking lot at Kennedy Space Center. Dale and the boys looked at rockets while I stayed and painted in our van. You can see a pic I took that morning of my setup. That study became a value study later back at my studio. Then I painted this larger piece which has all that early morning light.

That wonderful pleasure of playing tag with your sibling, putting your all into running and stepping just outside their reach. All good sibling relationships are models to us adults about how to be friends. It’s just no fun when your sibling refuses to play because tag, like tennis, like friendship, is meant for two.

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This is a great one….I, too, have played tennis and can relate, both to the analogy, and the idea of the responsibility of friendship….

Love the metaphor! Yup, I’m the friend that responds right away when my phone is in my hand ;-)and then when it’s not–you’ll hear from me soon.
And, Jonalyn, I didn’t know you played tennis. All these years, and I didn’t know. Let’s play together sometime!

Your analogies are so relatable for me! Thanks for pulling it all together for me! Ha, that sounds funny. Like you’re doing it for me only! truthfully, I am so thankful that you put the time, energy, experience and awareness into your blog.

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