Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
How did the pandemic affect your friendships?
Did you find yourself relying on a small, tight circle? How many people outside your family were you in regular contact with, whether via text, social media, Zoom, online gaming or even in-person events? Did you find yourself developing “hierarchies” — or rankings — of your friends depending on who you wanted to be in contact with most and least? If so, what did you learn about your friendship — and yourself — as a result?
In the article “The Pandemic Shrank Our Social Circles. Let’s Keep It That Way,” Kate Murphy writes:
The past year has forced a mass meditation on the nature and strength of our social ties. While our culture has encouraged us to accumulate friends, both on- and offline, like points, the pandemic has laid bare the distinction between quantity and quality of connections. There are those we’ve longed to see and those it’s been a relief not to see. The full reckoning will become apparent only when we can once again safely gather and invitations are — or are not — extended. Our social lives and social selves may never be the same.
Take Rachel Ernst, who joined a pod of six other single people in the San Francisco Bay Area at the start of the pandemic. While she didn’t know them well at the outset, she now regards them as her closest friends, thanks to their deep conversations about life, death, faith and justice, rather than the more superficial social chitchat she had grown accustomed to before the pandemic.
Previously, she said, her social life was a mad dash from one social event to another. “I had a pretty broad group of friends in a lot of different places, but it wasn’t always a deep or fulfilling connection,” Ms. Ernst said. She was also exhausted most of the time.
“Now I know I can just relax into deeper friendships,” she said. “The angst is gone, and it feels great.”
Research by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, shows that human beings have the cognitive capacity to accommodate only four to six close friends. These are the people in the top tier of your social network, for whom you have the greatest affinity and affection and who require daily or weekly interactions to maintain. Included in that group is typically your romantic partner and maybe a couple of family members.
Lower in the hierarchy are friends in whom you invest progressively less of your attention, and therefore your ties become more tenuous. Without some degree of regular contact, these second- and third-tier friends can fall into the realm of acquaintance. Given that we have limited time and emotional energy, social networks are a zero-sum game. Add a friend, and another one inevitably drops in the ranking.
“Sometimes you fall out with people, or you just find somebody else to substitute in that slot,” Dr. Dunbar said. “The pandemic is likely sharpening the decisions we make about who we really like and dropping those who we like if there’s nobody else.” All those incidental or convenient friends have likely evaporated, and you’re left to ponder who is actually important to you.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
What in this article resonated most with you? Why?
Are there people you’ve longed to see and people it’s “been a relief not to see” this year? Have “situational friends” fallen by the wayside? In general, how have your friendships changed? What has been positive about those changes, and what has been negative?
Do you think that you will maintain the social patterns you’ve developed over the past year when the world opens back up, or do you think you will most likely return to your prepandemic friendship and social patterns? Why?
Do you relate to the person quoted in the article who said that she had “deep conversations about life, death, faith and justice” with the members of her pod during quarantine, rather than the more superficial social chitchat she used to have with friends? If so, what did you tend to talk about in those deep conversations?
Do you find that your relationships mirror what Robin Dunbar found in her research — that people have the “cognitive capacity” for only four to six close friends, including romantic partners and family members?
This article reminds us that “friends don’t just happen. You have to put in the effort.” How do you “put in the effort”? Are there people in your life who deserve more effort?
Now that you’ve read this article and thought more deeply about your relationships, return to the question that we asked at the top of this post: In general, what did you learn about friendship this year, and what, as a result, did it reveal to you about yourself?
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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.