Friendship’s full of dregs


I’m not sure, but I think I may have been vindicated. I’ve never had an affinity for names, and so I’ve always tried to keep the number of them I have to remember to a bare minimum. I feel the same about faces, but I suppose that’s really the same thing. For years now, I’ve always had to defend my largely empty barn by telling everybody that on a sparse pasture it’s better to raise a small flock. I didn’t mean to suggest that I couldn’t give them enough to eat, but rather that it was a conscious and appropriate decision to take on what I felt my resources could support. As usual, however, my good intentions were misconstrued as social incompetence, rather than a recognition of my genetic atavisms, honestly inherited.

My mother had a lot of friends, but my father was more selective I think, and in the end he settled for smiling at my mother’s choices when his gradually disappeared. You don’t always get to choose the genes of friends I guess; I’m not even sure how friends happen. I can’t remember going out to look for one -or, for that matter, being picked out of a crowd myself. And yet, although we all seem to have them, it’s the quantity that baffles me. How many can you have -and how many can you handle? I mean, do you really have to remember all their names, or after a certain number is a nod okay: a brief brush of eyes at the door to let them in?

What’s even more confusing, though, is that social media is fiddling with the definitions. Friends were once easily differentiated from those who watched from the crowd -the flâneurs. To be friends, they had to share something resembling a bond of mutual affection, not merely facial recognition. That made it easier for people like me to relegate, and compare those with whom there was even less bonding to fish in a tank. I wish to cast no aspersions on aquarium-bound fish -I have known several that I talked to in passing- but I mean you have to stop somewhere, eh?

Facebook, for example, has trivialized the concept of friendship -weakened it to the point of encouraging anyone who may be a friend of a friend of somebody whose name you sort of recognize to petition you for inclusion in your list. I have not been tempted thus far, I hasten to add, but all the same, there are those occasions when the Black Dog growls, that I wish for more input on my posts… any input, actually.

But it makes me wonder whether, as is the wont of Language, the connotative part of ‘friend’ has wandered sufficiently far from the denotative that it begs for acceptance in its own right. It would help the matter immensely if someone came up with a realistic replacement word, however -something that won’t drag me into unintended intimacy, or gender disputes.

And if ‘friend’ is allowed to live as an expat, will I lose all control over it, or will there still be rules? In other words, would it then require -or even allow– an identifying adjective such as ‘true’, or ‘real’ or would that unmask me as geriatric, or perhaps a hopelessly naïve romantic?

I have to know, eh? I mean, a circle of friends is not whoever happens to find themselves inside an ever-expanding ripple on a pond, nor does it include everybody whose phone number has made it into the contact list on my phone. I like my family doctor and everything, but that doesn’t mean I can phone her up at any time just to chat.

No, I need boundaries: limits beyond which I can justifiably forget a name, or not feel a requirement to nod if I see them in the Food Court. Fortunately, I now feel partially exculpated by an article in the BBC Future series -this one written by Christine Ro:

‘There are well-defined limits to the number of friends and acquaintances the average person can retain.’ Citing a somewhat controversial theory of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, ‘the “magic number” is 150… Dunbar and his colleagues applied this basic principle to humans, examining historical, anthropological and contemporary psychological data about group sizes, including how big groups get before they split off or collapse. They found remarkable consistency around the number 150… According to the theory, the tightest circle has just five people – loved ones. That’s followed by successive layers of 15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts), 500 (acquaintances) and 1500 (people you can recognise). People migrate in and out of these layers, but the idea is that space has to be carved out for any new entrants.’ My social vindication, as you can see, is only partial.

I’m sorry, but Dunbar’s thesis admits far too many people for my comfort -it’s simply overcrowded, and unnecessarily profligate of memory circuits. And, indeed, ‘Not everyone subscribes to the social brain hypothesis. Some are sceptical about the possibility of deriving a magic number for social interaction at all.’ I think I’m in that circle. And anyway, especially if you include the digital presence of online interactions, I’d miss the physicality of contact: the touch, the smell, the presence of the other -all nonverbal, to be sure, but nonetheless, for me, integral and necessary parts for meaningful social interactions.

But I am willing to admit that there are probably almost unbridgeable generational differences. Indeed, ‘Dunbar’s own research suggests generational differences in this regard. Those aged 18–24 have much larger online social networks than those aged 55 and above. And the primacy of physical contact in the social brain hypothesis may apply less to young people who have never known life without the internet, for whom digital relationships may be just as meaningful as analogue ones.’

It’s almost as if we’re into generational apples-and-oranges stuff here: not only may relationships be seen differently, equally, words may be heard differently -transmogrified, adapted to circumstances undreamed of in the Winnipeg of my formative youth. I’m tempted to say that we didn’t need as many friends then, but it’s more likely a simple retrospective distortion: an as-required thing that varied with circumstance. Maybe if I’d grown up in the digital age, I would have written geek programs for avatars and listed them as Friends if anyone asked.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe it’s not too late…

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