I learned this week that I have enough friends. Well, that’s a relief! Apparently, they might not be the right type of friends, but the number is spot on. Not that I socialize with cheats, liars and thieves, but there are categorizations of friendship that I was previously (blissfully) unaware of but now can’t get out of my head. I don’t know why there is such a focus on friends lately, but in the past two weeks both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have run articles about analyzing friendships. If two newspapers as divergent as those pick up on the trend, I think there’s something to it.
The notion of analyzing how many people we can maintain friendships with started in Britain in the 1990’s with a study done by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He suggested that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. The number he came up with is 150. His theory has stood the test of time and is now referred to as “Dunbar’s Number”. In typical British fashion, Dunbar synthesized his theory down to the local pub so that people like me could understand it. His definition of identifying your closest 150 friends is that they are people that you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar. Man, when I think about it that way, I’ve had a lot more than 150 friends at some points in my life. I’ve struck up conversations with perfect strangers if they looked like they were having fun – or would buy me a drink. But I get his point.
Mr. Dunbar published new research last year, written just before the pandemic, that seems to winnow down, or perhaps better define, what we need from friendships in today’s world. As I noted, it was written before the pandemic but seems to foretell our need to limit our social interactions. In his recent book he writes that friendships sift themselves into concentric circles, like a bull’s-eye. The innermost ring comprises our closest friends and family members. This “support clique” numbers around five people and is so named because it consists of all the people who would unstintingly give you support or help if you needed it. The next ring, at 15 people, forms what he calls the “sympathy group,” which he defines as “the people you invite round for a quiet dinner or an evening at the pub.” Then comes a circle of 50 “good friends,” and on and on in multiples of three, with 150—his famous Dunbar’s Number—marking the upper limit of how many friendships you can realistically maintain. Eventually we reach the ring of 500, which he said comprises acquaintances you know through work or a social group, but who are “unlikely to bother turning up to your funeral.”
The gist of both the WSJ and NYT articles was that the past few years have diminished our tolerance for uncomfortable or unfulfilling social interactions; the ones that excessively drain our social battery. Both articles highlight the idea that we have scaled down the number of people who are in our “good friends” circle because at first, we had to, and then we wanted to. I think that I had already started to think about relationships and friendships before the pandemic hit. Maybe it’s an age-related phenomenon. I realize that I’ve rounded third base, so I have become a lot pickier about how – and with whom – I want to spend my time.
I’m not close to becoming a hermit – although if I watch much more nightly news it might become a distinct possibility. I still enjoy socializing and being with friends. I have coffee with one of my closest friends every two weeks. We enjoy an hour of catching up and solving world problems. My knitting group is an especially close group of women. When I mentioned the friendship articles to them, we started a discussion about why we have formed such close ties. We concluded that each week we spend hours together simply talking. We aren’t hitting a golf or tennis ball, or choosing the next card to play at bridge, we simply spend time talking with each other. Over time, that has caused us to know a lot about each other’s lives, families, opinions, and every once in a while, we even talk about knitting. We have formed a close bond because we have had the time to develop them because it is uninterrupted quiet time to simply enjoy being with each other.
Of course, Dash the Wonder Dog is still my #1 friend. If you have the love of a dog, you don’t need much more. But I am lucky to have my close 15. I even think they would show up to my funeral. Especially if there is good food and an open bar.