Should you rebuild all the friendships you've lost during COVID-19?
Friends generally fall into tiers, like the ol’ food pyramid, except in this case, the tiny triangle at the pinnacle is where the good stuff is, your best friends who provide the most nourishment.
It’s not like 2020 was a year without friends. We raised a toast on Zoom birthday parties, organised trivia nights on Google Meet and spent more time than ever waiting in lines, a great place to make new friends.
I mean, I made one, even. His name is Josh, and he is a writer who lives in my neighbourhood. For years, he remained at that cool-guy-I-should-definitely-get-to-know-better status. Life gets in the way.
Life changed last March. With our families thrown together into a pod, Josh became a lifeline to sanity as other friends disappeared. We fretted about politics while our children played hide-and-seek. Crisis created a closeness.
But spending all that time with Josh also made me realise how much the rest of my social life had winnowed. Many friends vanished into pods of their own. Our mutual friend, Jay, who introduced me to Josh, disappeared into his home for the duration. I still have the gift-wrapped bottle of whiskey I bought for his 40th birthday, in February 2020.
Gone were the dinner parties with the couples we saw quarterly. Gone were seemingly half the parent friends from our sons’ schools.
Doesn’t everyone have stories like that? For many of us the pandemic was a great social winnowing, a paring down of our widest circles of friends to a skeleton crew of essentials – those who happened to be proximate, available, in our circle of trust.
Everyone else? Well, they were all on hold until “all this is over”, to cite a tired phrase.
The common assumption is that we are counting the minutes until we get back out there, to hurtle into jubilant mobs like carnival revellers. The high-decibel house parties. The sweaty dance floors. Elbowing for drinks in a packed-to-the-rafters-bar. In short: People!
And for many, that is unquestionably true. Maybe not everybody. A year is a long time. People aged, people moved. People got married, people got divorced. People changed, people died. Along the way, the social webs that connected us were stretched to the limit.
If you can’t go out to public places, you’re not picking up new casual friends, and the casual friends you already have are just going to drift off your radar.
“Everyone has changed the way they interact,” said Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who studies peer networks.
Over the past year, she said, we stopped exploring, often limiting our rare encounters to tiny groups of trusted intimates. We didn’t get new ones.
“If you can’t go out to public places,” Adams said, “you’re not picking up new casual friends, and the casual friends you already have are just going to drift off your radar. We don’t know what the lasting effect of these social disruptions will be.”
We’re about to find out. It’s only reasonable to wonder if we will be able to revive all those friendships that spent a year on hold – and if we even want to.
THE BACKGROUND MUSIC OF OTHER HUMANS
Think back to the fantastical Neverland of 2019. Think of the parties you went to, the gatherings, the club nights. Where are all of those people now? How much do you miss them?
It depends on the friends, obviously. Friends generally fall into tiers, like the ol' food pyramid, except in this case, the tiny triangle at the pinnacle is where the good stuff is, your best friends who provide the most nourishment.
The broad base of the pyramid represents the acquaintances, the kinda-friends, the friends of friends and amiable whoevers that, like salted egg yolk chips or bubble milk tea, are great but do not make a full meal.
Such loose acquaintances can be categorised as “weak tie” relationships, to summon a term coined by the Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter in the 1970s, as Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic in January. They were also the first to go during the pandemic as shops, restaurants and offices closed.
Mull eulogised these almost-friends who were suddenly absent from her life, “the guy who’s always at the gym at the same time as you, the barista who starts making your usual order while you’re still at the back of the line”.
While these folks may not make it onto your phone, they matter in sum, Adams said. She feels it in her own life. As a music fan, she misses the dancing crowds that used to pack into the clubs. She will venture back at some point. The scene will be different.
TOO CASUAL, TOO INTIMATE, TOO DISTANT, TOO FAR
If the friendly barista is gone, another will likely take his place. But what about second- and third-tier friends, the people you’re still formal enough to email with, but not text?
The too-candid colleague you would gossip with over drinks before she got laid off during the pandemic; the parents you lingered to talk to at school drop-off; the hilarious fashion victim who tagged along to clubs.
“Casual friendships are based primarily on proximity and convenience, rather than a true connection,” said Irene Levine, a former professor of psychiatry at the New York University school of medicine, who writes about friendship. “They are linked to a situation.”
The pandemic pods that so many of us created may have been a factor. By definition, joining a pod means seeing few people outside of it.
And once inside, the pod can become faintly cult-like, with us-against-the-world overtones. You develop in-jokes and a shared language. Everyone else is outside the circle of trust. How careful are they? Are they safe to hang out with?
The omnipresent smartphones and laptops that hold distant friends together also, paradoxically, may have helped pull them apart. Some of this was just a numbers game. How many people can you fit onto a group text without it turning into chaos. Five? Seven? Not everyone will make the cut.
WHERE ARE YOUR FRIENDS TONIGHT?
But what about our closest friends? Shenton Way types often talk about a “flight to quality”, the tendency of investors to abandon riskier, less established stocks for blue chips during a crisis.
The same might be said about friendships during the pandemic, as we winnowed our portfolio of friends down to known quantities.
Personal tragedy, in a year full of them, sometimes had the same effect. “I always kept my wider web around me as a safety net, just in case,” said Amy Lin, 31, a schoolteacher in Canada.
In August, she lost her husband suddenly, to a non-COVID-related illness. In the month following her loss, Lin, said, “I had to make very specific choices about who I spent time with, and the people that I did spend time with have had to carry a really big weight in terms of my grief”.
That included a best friend who drove three hours to pick her up at the hospital where her husband died. And the friends who walked with her in freezing temperatures when she needed to talk. She learned she didn’t need that large acquaintance safety net.
“I don’t know if I would have found this kind of radical friendship without these harrowing circumstances,” she said. “My best friends just so completely showed up.”
THE RIGHT SIZE OF FRIENDS
The restaurants and bars are refilling, and COVID-19 cases in the community have been kept at very low rates. Time to get the old gang back together, right?
For plenty of people, sure. But it’s not always as simple as that. “We’re approaching an ending, and when people approach endings, they tend to savour instead of explore,” said Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University, who founded a centre on longevity. Faced with the closing of a chapter, we tend to “focus on known people, known prospects, not on the expansive, the new. They’re not thinking, ‘Let’s go try out new things’”.
Students and young single adults, Carstensen said, are most likely to slip back into pre-pandemic mode, collecting friends in bulk to maximise their opportunities to pursue mates, build careers and find their place in the world.
Others, too, learned to appreciate the simple calm of it all. “There was finally permission from the culture at large that you don’t have to show up at everything,” said Lisa Cochran, 39, an at-home mother who works part-time at her husband’s plumbing company in Virginia. “There’s a freedom there.”
Even extroverts learned lessons in pulling back. LaTonya Yvette, 31, a stylist and blogger in Brooklyn, used to hold giant parties. But she has come to savour the intimate friendships that blossomed in the past year, including with a neighbour who sang with her every night at 7pm during the darkest days.
“I’m so thankful to have more emotional space,” Yvette said. “I don’t see that changing. I don’t necessarily want it to.”
By Alex Williams © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.