In this week's New Yorker, staff writer Tad Friend describes the actress Anna Faris as a "winsome bubblehead." How endearingly predictable! We have long admired this technique, sporadically deployed by Friend, of accurately describing someone without being cruel by blunting a sharp descriptor with a modifying sheath. Given the happy coincidence that Friend's very name jibes with the chummily gimlet-eyed attitude of his prose, let's call it the Friendly.
Friendlies seem to crop up in particular in those profiles and articles for which Friend logged enough time with the subject to both gain insight and develop empathy. So, for instance, he found Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke, who apparently started talking to her dog while in the middle of a phone conversation with Friend, to be "appealingly distractible." The Lonely Planet travel-guide-publishing company, chaotic in its early days, was "disarmingly ad hoc." A dim-witted treasure hunter's analogies are "appealingly muddled." One of Giorgio Armani's executives is "lovingly ferocious," while the Italian designer himself evinces a "compelling neediness." Friend was struck, too, by the "ingratiating reserve" of death-row warden Vernell Crittenden.
Friend isn't proprietary about the method, happily quoting a comedy writer who describes Garry Shandling as "marvelously self-absorbed." (Occasionally, Friend finds himself in the position of saying something that could be construed as complimentary about someone he clearly looks down on and tempers it with a negative. So, in reviewing screenwriter William Goldman's book Which Lie Did I Tell?, he speaks of Goldman's "lunatic candor." Call it an Unfriendly.)
Friend's way of saying the nice thing before the mean thing is the Yankee rejoinder to the Southern art of saying the mean thing before the nice thing ("she's the pudgiest little thing, bless her heart"; "he's dumb as a brick, God love him"). Somehow, the flipped order makes all the difference. The proverbial Dixie compliment is all passive aggression. The Friendly, by contrast, is sporting, even generous. One sees, in Friend's magnificently repetitive use of the device, a Wasp playing badminton with himself. On one side of the net, the astringent observer of modern life whacks the shuttlecock. On the other, a courtly preppy lobs it back diffidently.
Finding a Friendly in each Friend piece can be fun, not unlike scanning a Hirschfeld drawing for Nina. Equally entertaining is coming up with Friendlies for the people in your life — "suavely misanthropic," "charmingly disheveled" — or, better yet, for famous people. Courtney Love? "Eminently insensible." Michael Bloomberg? "Delightfully imperious." Glenn Beck? "Ebulliently daffy." Hitler? "Heroically intolerant." See how it takes the sting out of things?