How to rearrange your post-pandemic “friendscape”

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It’s probably fair to say that for most of us, 2020 was a pretty quiet year. Although some gathered in bubbles or pods with immediate family and closest friends, large social gatherings with the potential for making new friends have been mostly non-existent. As we re-engage with one another after a year of isolation, who will we choose to interact with? How many friends are too many, and is now a good time to drop some of those draining relationships? 

In her latest New York Times article, “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape,’” journalist and author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It MattersKate Murphy says the pandemic may have provided us with an opportunity “to shed unsatisfying and unfulfilling relationships” while giving us  “the time and space to strengthen bonds with those we truly cared about.” KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian talks with Murphy about the importance of choosing who we hang out with, and why it’s OK to leave some relationships dormant.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: How have we reconstructed the idea of friendship or thought it through in new ways over the last year?

Kate Murphy: “At the height of the pandemic, with every interpersonal interaction, you were doing a risk-benefit analysis, essentially. And so you were really looking at, ‘Is it worth it to be with this person?’ It gets a little bit ruthless, and you discover pretty quickly how committed you and the other person are to the relationship. What are you willing to risk? You can say it's not personal, but fundamentally, it is. And so you think about, who did you take the risk to be with? Who was that important to you? And that was really what we were discovering. 

We were also discovering who we missed, and also who we didn't miss. It was almost like you had been really, really busy and you didn't realize that your shoes really hurt. And then when you took off your shoes, it was like, ‘Oh, I feel so much better.’ And there are relationships that are like that. So people realize in the absence of that person, ‘Oh, what a relief.’  A lot of people really realized it was an awakening—who sustains them, who gives them energy, who makes them feel better. And really, any traumatic experience, not just the pandemic, but anyone who's gone through a breakup, or death in the family, or a health scare, or a financial turnaround, they realize who they go to, and who they want to stay away from. 

And it's the people that drain and drag you down. Maybe you could deal with them at another point in your life. But when you're low on those emotional resources, you realize who your real friends are. And that happened during the pandemic. And except with the pandemic, it was a collective traumatic experience. So we were all sorting and sifting through our relationships at once. So it really was an incredible social shift. Even now, as things are ramping back up, we don't really know how this is going to shake out. ... I think there is going to be a social shift. And it's just whether or not we can sustain that.”

You spoke to the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who argued that we have the cognitive capacity to accommodate maybe four to six close friends.

“Yes, that was one of his findings, that we really only have the cognitive capacity and emotional resources to have four to six close friends. And that would include your parent or your sibling. A lot of people don't include those people as your close friends. But in a lot of cases, if you're lucky, your spouse or family member is your good close friend. And you only have so many slots. So if you've got your spouse there, and you've got maybe a child, sibling, or a parent, that's taken up three slots right there. So you've got left only two to four people outside of those, if you have those. 

And if you think about it, close relationships are a matter of time. They're an investment of your time. And so when we think about this business, and ‘I've got to go to this party, and I've got a network, and I've got to be around these people,’ it's not that quality time that builds the types of relationships that sustain us. And if you only have that many slots, it really behooves you to think about, ‘Who am I going to invest that time and that energy in?’ Because it's essential to your health, not only emotionally, psychologically, but physically. It's what keeps you physically healthy.”

Your piece discusses the idea of a “friend-scape,” which is a practical way of thinking about how we keep friends in our lives, how close they are, how far they are. Can you talk about this idea and where you got it from?

“I got that from I have to give credit where credit is due to Suzanne Degges-White. She is a professor at Northern Illinois University, and she has this idea of, instead of thinking who you want to exclude or include in your social circle, to think about your social network as a landscape artist. She calls it a ‘friend-scape,’ where you have people in the foreground, which would be that four to six people that Robin Dunbar talks about, and are top tier. 

And then you have the middle ground, which is about 15 to 20 people that maybe you see every month, every couple months. And then out in the background and off towards the horizon are people that you progressively invest less time and emotional energy. And it's really deciding who you want to be front and center in your life. When you think about arranging things, who are the ornamental in your landscape? Who are the sturdy shrubs, and who are the flowers and the ones that really give you joy and are continually blooming and growing? 

When I was talking about that issue of health, the research has shown over and over that you take on the psychology, the values, and the behaviors of the people that you're around. People who have obese friends tend to get obese. People who have friends who drink a lot and smoke a lot will tend to drink and smoke a lot. Conversely, people who hang around people who are kind, studious, enterprising, they tend to be kind, studious, and enterprising themselves. This is not to say that you should abandon friends who are depressed or who are having a hard time. But you should be mindful of who you're spending the majority of your time with, because it will impact your own feelings and behaviors.”

Why do you think that this pandemic has been especially difficult for teens in terms of what they've been missing in this whole process? 

“I'm not sure I'm totally convinced that it has been harder on teens, I think it's been hard for everybody. And maybe teens are more in touch with that. I think as we get older, we put this shell over us and think it's not that important. However, with teens, that is an age where you're really looking to your peers to maybe break away from your family cocoon, and you're trying to find a sense of yourself. And when all of a sudden that's taken away from you, that can be particularly difficult, because no longer you're no longer growing and finding out who you are, you're still the child within the home. 

But teens were really suffering before the pandemic, if you look at all of the research. A lot of that had to do with not having close friends, because they were spending so much time on screens. … It creates this sense of loneliness. You do not get the same connection with another person through a device. Devices are wonderful and help you bridge the times between when you can be together. But you cannot have the same degree of connection, and that is where a lot of this ‘screen generation’ is having so much trouble. And that's been documented by many people. 

That's something that all of us have to think about now as we're coming out of the pandemic, because we have been reduced to our screens. And we did realize, ‘Boy, this doesn't cut it, a Zoom happy hour is not as fun as being with actual people.’ But also our social skills atrophy. It is a skill. And after a year and a half of not practicing that skill, there are so many fine little social cues, many outside of our awareness, that have fallen into a bit of disrepair. I think people will notice when they go back into social situations that there will be a level of awkwardness that maybe they didn't have before as they're getting back into it. So we all need to give each other a break."

You’ve mentioned studies showing that we replace as much as half of our social network every five to seven years. Why do we do that? 

“It almost sounds bad, that somehow, you're fickle. But actually, it's everyone, and the studies have been done in several countries. And there is this turn, even in the best of times in relationships. And that happens because there's outgrowing. We are all changing and evolving every day in spite of ourselves. And sometimes relationships do not grow and evolve together. 

There's also this idea that we can be as lazy socially as we are physically. It takes a lot of time and effort to be a good friend and to be in a healthy relationship. It's back to that notion of a ‘friend-scape.’ If you don't tend to a garden, you've got a bunch of dead and struggling plants. And it's the same thing with a friendship if you don't put in the time. So again, the sense of slothfulness, socially, where people just hang out with whoever happens to be around, or whoever's pinging them online, instead of really making the effort in a relationship. 

And then the third thing that can happen is we often build relationships through the organizations that we’re in. ... And then when you stop doing that, you really weren't that great of friends with those people, but it was easy to be friends with them, because you saw them all the time, it was built into your routine. And when you change your routine, those relationships fall by the wayside. So that's how this churn happens. And it doesn't necessarily mean someone's a bad person. But it's, what effort are you willing to put in? And what about your life is structured around the relationship that keeps it going? And if that structure ends, is the relationship strong enough to continue? And oftentimes, it isn't.”

On the other hand, some of the strongest friendships are the ones that have been through the trenches, that you bring with you moving through time as you grow older. Would you agree with that?

“Yes. We think of these ruptures in relationships as something that ends the relationships. But really, the tears and riffs in friendships are actually the fabric of the relationship. The people that you are closest to are the ones that you can have that upset with and then work it out. Healthy relationships are not relationships without conflict. Healthy relationships are determined by the way those conflicts are resolved. 

When you have those fights when you say something you shouldn't have or the other person hurts your feelings, it’s being able to work that out. And to really discover, why did that hurt that person's feelings? What are the other person's lines in the sand? What is it that in their past that makes that a sensitive area? You get to know them so much better. And that really makes for that close, intimate, and strong relationship. Those rips and tears that are stitched over stronger make for a better, stronger weave of a relationship.”



  • Kate Murphy - Journalist and author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.”


Andrea Brody