Issue #23: Belonging and Friendship

“Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.” — Simone Weil

One sign of tight friendships? You name your group texts: Bestie Row, Team Tito’s and Cheetos, and All Heart. There’s a funny story behind each of these names, and upwards of 15 years of history and memory, conversations and trust under girding those group text names. Stories, jokes, and language inscrutable to those outside the circle are hallmarks of close bonds of friendship. Of course, friend is a word that gets bandied about, making it somewhat meaningless without context.

My boyfriend’s 11 year old nephew is part of a Fortnite squad, a group of kids that he plays the game with in Battle Royale mode. Although the squad has a name and shared language about how to best navigate the virtual battlefield, he doesn’t have close bonds with everyone in the squad. When I’ve asked him if his squad talks about anything besides Fortnite, he has said no and wonders why he would even try to do something like that. His friendships with the squad members share some similarities and key differences that illuminate how the nature of friendships changing reflects belonging in our chosen relationships.

Cigna’s 2018 Loneliness Index demonstrated that roughly 2 in 5 Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful. About 1 in 4 Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people that really understand and connect with them. There’s been an explosion of research on the loneliness epidemic in recent years, pointing to perceived quality friendships as protective factors against chronic disease onset and exacerbation. The health impacts of loneliness from a lack of perceived meaningful relationships is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Friendship quantity

A recent study on gorillas’ friendships re-emphasized a concept called Dunbar’s number. Dunbar’s number refers to the idea that our brains have a cognitive limit of about 150 stable relationships that we can maintain. No matter how many friends you have on Facebook, your brain lacks the capacity to keep track of the stories, langugage, and intimacy required for you to predictably receive meaning and other value from those relationships. So even though you can cast a wider net through technologies like social media, games, or virtual reality, your brain will allocate more resources to strong relationships maintaining weak ties with the rest.

The researchers for that study were careful to point out that only looking at quantity missed much of the rich data that describes the complexity and diversity of our friendships. In some ways, the terminology of “weak ties” is misleading. Even weak ties to co-workers decreases reported loneliness at work. It is also those same weak ties that often help people find work through an expanded network of contacts. Yet, it’s weak ties that are one of the casualties of physical distancing among a pandemic. We don’t gather ‘round the water cooler. We don’t bump into a fellow parent at soccer practice. We don’t see an old classmate while out at dinner.

With no proximity or reciprocity and weak similarity, these friendships wither on the vine, along with the potential opportunities and benefits that they could bring. Shift like permanent work from home and the paused reopenings could significantly reduce belonging in other settings like the workplace and communities, as people become more insular and hold narrower worldviews. Unlike kinship, we choose our friends and some of those friends may become like family. Also unlike kinship, we appear to have both a floor (more than zero) and a ceiling (not really more than 150) for our friendships.

Psychology has a lot to say about what factors constitute a quality friendship including proximity, similarity, and reciprocity. My group-text-level friendship came college roommates, grad school roommates and a professional fellowship, all settings for physical proximity. Similarity refers to the strength of resemblance; I went to the same college for two of the groups and the same fellowship for the other. And I can’t even begin to describe the level of reciprocity over the years. The women of Bestie Row have supported each other through finals stress, bad boyfriends, moving all over the world, job changes, launching businesses, marriage, childbirth and parenting, and most recently, a global pandemic and a country awakening to the legacy of racial injustice.

These factors don’t speak to the wear and tear of time on belonging in friendships. Certainly, moving at the pace of modern life changes friendships as well as the individuals within them. Anyone who has seen the last season of Insecure either experienced or relived what it means to no longer belong in an old friendship. Maybe you grow apart, reducing the similarity that you once shared. Or maybe there’s instability either within or surrounding the relationship that impedes the reciprocity needed to build empathy, trust and intimacy.

Aminatou Sou and Ann Friedman recount their near-miss arrival at Friend Splitville in their book Big Friendship.

There was never a “right” time to bring up the disconnect. It felt too heavy for a quick weeknight check-in, and when we did find ourselves in the same city, we didn’t want to spoil one of our precious in-person hangs with a dreary discussion. We wish someone had been there to tell us what we know now: You have to prioritize conversations about things that feel difficult. We wish someone had reminded us that it was going to take work to transition to this new era with our bond intact. Someone to nudge us to ask each other questions like, “How can I support you right now?”

The Great Accelerator, known at the COVID-19 pandemic, has prompted a re-evaluation of everything in our lives including our friendships. If you haven’t had or known someone who has had a friendship breakup during lockdown, have you even lived through 2020? Maybe you need a friendship audit to understand who your real friends are. Or the process of forming a social pod or bubble to weather the still ongoing pandemic could act suss out friends worthy of being on your Dunbar’s number list rather than a weak tie.

Here are a few ways that the key factors for friendship that fosters belonging may be shifting:

Proximity

With families at home more often, kids don’t have access to curated playgroups and structured extracurriculars and instead are turning more to neighborhood-based play. Research has shown that these proximity-driven friendships offer a number of benefits:

Children who lived close to one another were found to have high-quality friendships that were more frequent, emotionally intimate and longer-lasting than those that did not.

Research shows neighborhood-based play may have distinct advantages, as it is often characterized by mixed-age peer groups. Having groups of friends with both older and younger playmates may uniquely support children's development by allowing them to both learn skills from those that are older, while also serving as role models and mentors for children who are younger.

At the other end of the age spectrum, lonely senior citizens are turning to gaming to overcome their proximity challenges including lack of physical mobility and transportation.

Similarity

The search for similarity in friendship sometimes results in odd bedfellows. The project Nuns and Nones brings together elderly nuns and millennial atheists under a convent roof to discuss what it means to live a life of dedication, purpose and meaning. Although most of us don’t want to be be cloistered in a convent to enjoy cross-generational friendships, technology has helped erode the barriers to relationships that may have not been as social permissible 20 years ago. As the line between work and life fades away, and we all live farther away from family, women especially are seeking out intergenerational friendships to share wisdom and build emotional connection through digital platforms like The Grand.

Reciprocity

Reciprocity can be more transactional, referring to the exchange of resources. Technology has expanded the range and extended the reach of resources. One example is the podcast Teenager Therapy, hosted by five teenagers who launched the podcast during the lockdown. Some episodes feature guest interviews, but much of the time involves teenagers talking to teenagers. Of course resources are important, and relationships are important sources of resources. But belonging comes from having meaningful relationships. That meaning is built over time with small exchanges of listening and witnessing as well as building and sustaining psychological safety. The willingness to grapple with the difficulty builds resilience.

One form factor overlooked in the popularity of Teenage Therapy is the use of audio rather than video. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling too much Zoom fatigue for even my friendships. Author and connection coach Kat Vellos captures the weirdness of the embodiment/disembodiment paradox of Zoom friendships.

Technology makes us aware of our physicality in unnatural ways that make friendships in the time of Corona even harder than it needs to be. Give yourself and your friends a break on your method of exchanging presence and support. Lean into actually using your iPhone as a real phone. Break out pen and paper to write a bonafide letter without being at camp. Friendship that includes belonging requires the breadth of digital and virtual interactions and the depth of more analog intentional communication.

Of course, we may not need to think about the factors that affect the formation of quality friendships of belonging soon. Researchers at Columbia conducted a small neurological study that points to a future “friendship prediction machine.”

And as it turns out, when it comes to predicting future friends, our gut instincts are nowhere near as reliable as our brains.

"Our neural response to other people is very strongly predictive of who we're going to like months later," said Bearman.

In other words, the researchers realized they could tell more about friendships that would form within the group by looking at the participants' brains than by asking them directly. One reason this might be, said Bearman, is that our brains may actually have more access to our inner goals than our conscious mind.

But until we have personal fMRIs telling us who are friends should be, keep the principles of proximity, similarity, and reciprocity in mind. Belonging happens by design, and belonging in friendships is no exception. Although our weak ties may erode under the strain of distance, we havae more tools than ever for our close bonds to be even more tightknit.

Reader Highlight

Excited for everyone to meet Shelby Chartkoff!

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