While other people stockpiled toilet paper and dried beans last year, Sheldon Cohen prepared for the pandemic by compiling a list of family members, friends and colleagues with whom he wanted to be in regular contact during what he rightly feared would be an extended period of isolation. A professor of psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University, Dr. Cohen has spent much of his career studying the link between social ties and health, and the idea that maintaining relationships is, as he put it, “good for you.”
But some relationships are better than others. So Dr. Cohen treated the 800-some contacts on his phone like a data set and sorted people according to various relational, emotional and behavioral criteria to come up with a shortlist of 50 individuals, ranked according to how often he wished to interact with them and how often he thought they might want to hear from him.
Whether a contact got a phone call every few days or a text or an email every few months depended on that person’s position in the hierarchy. “It’s an interesting way to think about your social network,” Dr. Cohen said. “How you define a social tie determines who gets on the list and how meaningful they are to you.”
Few are as deliberate as Dr. Cohen, but we have all been making similar calculations during the pandemic. Do I like these people enough to include them in my pod? Can I endure another Zoom happy hour with the people in my running club? Is it worth the risk to travel to my former roommate’s wedding?
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.
To be sure, there is a lot of churn in human social networks even in the best of times. Several studies show we replace as much as half of our social network every five to seven years. Little wonder when research also shows only half of our friendships are mutual. That is, only half of those who we think are our friends feel the same way about us. It just normally takes us a while to figure that out.
The pandemic has only accelerated our rude awakening. When every interpersonal interaction becomes a risk-benefit analysis, you discover pretty quickly how committed you and the other person are to the relationship. A lot of situational relationships — friends we’ve made through work or our kids’ schools and sports teams — have fallen by the wayside.
And maybe that’s OK. “Once you don’t have those external forces making your contacts frequent, then you start realizing, ‘You know what? We really didn’t have that much to talk about,’” said Mario Luis Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who studies social ties. “‘And come to think about it, we haven’t actually confided anything deeply personal outside of that particular context.’”
Billy Reid, a clothing designer, said he lost contact with people during the pandemic with whom he doesn’t intend to reconnect. It reminds him of the time after Sept. 11, when he packed up his company and moved to Florence, Ala., to be near his wife’s family. “The awareness of mortality definitely gives you a confidence, an affirmation or maybe an excuse to decide this person is important to me and this person is not,” he said.
But recognizing that someone is important and reaching out are only the first steps. Maintenance is where we generally fall down on the job when it comes to relationships and why so many people felt as if they were left without a chair when Covid made the music stop.
William Rawlins, a professor emeritus of interpersonal communication at Ohio University, has interviewed people from age 4 to 100 about friendship and discovered that people have similar expectations when it comes to their friends: We want those who are there for us, who listen without judgment and understand what we’re going through. They may not agree with us, but they get us.
“People remain friends to the extent they are fulfilling each other’s expectation of the relationship across the life span and, I would say, across Covid,” Dr. Rawlins said. “We need to cross-examine ourselves: Who have we kept in touch with during the pandemic? Who have you taken a risk at a certain point to see because they mean that much to you?”
Friends don’t just happen. You have to put in the effort. And part of that is realizing who makes you feel comfortable and connected and who makes you feel pinched and awkward like those stiletto heels or business suits you wore before the pandemic and now wonder how you stood it.
While some are predicting a period of promiscuity and partying akin to the Roaring Twenties after the 1918 influenza pandemic, there’s reason to believe history may not repeat itself. Ours has been an era defined by divisiveness, narcissism, frantic busyness and an epidemic of loneliness. The social isolation imposed by Covid-19 has exposed the shortcomings of individualism, incessant striving, superficiality and can’t-talk-now-text-me-later lifestyles.
Many, like Ms. Ernst, have a guilty reluctance about things returning to the way things were. “It sounds terrible, but I’ve liked the peace that comes with not having to run around,” she said. “I’ve been able to have fewer and deeper friendships, and I want to hold on to that.”
Just as many who lived through the Great Depression continued to scrimp and save even when living in relative abundance, so too might those who survive the Covid pandemic continue to cultivate and conserve close relationships when it’s safe to once again swim in the sea of humanity.
As for Dr. Cohen, he said he hasn’t looked at his social network much since he created it. “I have a memory for who is on it,” he said. “I realize who I haven’t talked to.” If anything good comes from the coronavirus pandemic, it might be that we keep our friends in mind.
Kate Murphy is the author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.”
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