Why can’t we be friends?

4 minute read

I recently organised group drinks for 12 people, a meetup for 8, and two separate dinners for 4. I like bringing people together, especially if the people that meet can mutually benefit. Hence my occasional hosting of cocktail nights [1] and more frequent spam invitations to people to events happening in NY. It can be frustrating though, especially when you don’t get replies. Not replying is not the same as replying no. The latter is far more useful and less annoying. The former makes it seem like the event is such a bad suggestion it wasn’t even worth replying to. The easy solution is to take the hint that nobody actually wants to go, but I then hear back individually about how they wish they could make a dinner or liked the previous event. It’s a struggle.

It used to be even worse. I tend to take people at their word, which is probably suboptimal. For some reason Out of politeness many people I’ve met in America will say that they’re interested in doing an activity in conversation even though they have zero intent of doing so. e.g. “Oh hey you make drinks? I want to learn / try some!” and then not reply to all future invitations. [2] I’ve gotten used to this over time though, and now my default is to assume people are just making conversation.

The number of events I put together means that attendees are friends or acquaintances that I have varying degrees of closeness to. Some could also be friends of friends that I’ve not met before. Everyone also has friends that are of various degrees of closeness. I was curious about whether anyone had categorised these stages of friendship so I did some digging. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find reputable studies on the topic, though I came across some theorising.

This link high up in search results and this other article that seems like a person’s individual pet theory both come up with similar frameworks to describe stages of friendship:

  1. Stranger
  2. Acquaintance
  3. Emerging friendship
  4. Close friends
  5. Intimate friends

Which seems like a decent framework to start with. As you grow, the people you interact with move in and out of those groups. I’d put most of the people I know in categories 2 and 3, with few in 4, and nearly none in 5. I’m curious as to how other people would categorise their friends. It’s also interesting how you might think of someone as a 4, but they only think of you as a 2 or 3. This likely leads to people feeling hurt when they think the other party isn’t putting in as much work in the friendship as they are.

How has this changed with social media? This Atlantic article makes the claim that Facebook has created a new kind of friendship, the “vestigial friend”

It’s the one you’ve evolved out of, the one that would normally have faded out of your life, but which, thanks to Facebook, is instead still hanging around.

In other words, those friends that were in categories 3 to 5 and have drifted to 2, only hanging on there because there’s the slight chance you’ll accidentally like their instagram cross-posted facebook baby picture when trying to swipe downwards. I like to think I’ve been more selective in accepting FB requests [3], but even then I now find myself having a whole bunch of people I’ve not talked to in the past ten years, a trend likely to continue into the next ten.

The Atlantic article talks about Dunbar’s number, 150, which is supposedly the approximate number of friends you can keep track of. Most people have much more FB friends than that, implying the majority fall into the casual acquaintance category. If that’s the case, why remain friends with them? Perhaps some of that is the guilt from unfriending someone, and perhaps some of that is wanting to preserve optionality so that you can ask for help in the future. Posting a shameless self-promotion on your FB status is a significantly easier way of reaching your entire friend group compared to talking to everyone individually [4].

Since most friendships are going to be casual friendships, should we aim to make more friends? Time thinks so, and they recently cited a study that claims the strength of your social network has effects on your (self-reported) health. In their own words,

  1. We discovered that social network structure is correlated with health behavior data obtained from wearables and can capture the trends.
  2. We demonstrated that social network structure is highly predictive of wellness states

I didn’t understand how they measured quality of the social network, but you can check the study yourself to see what you think. I found some other articles on the benefits of friendship while looking into this issue, and I’ll be continuing on this in next week’s post.

Footnotes

  1. Let me know if you’d like an invite!
  2. As you can tell, I dislike flaky people, but that’s a subject of another post
  3. The few that I got
  4. I say this as someone who has been recently shamelessly self-promoting my newsletter. Check it out here

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