Pruning is usually a technique applied to roses in winter, but more recently the gardening term has been cropping up whenever sociologists talk about our social lives. People have been pruning friends.
Confined to our homes, or separated by borders, with too much time gifted to us in isolation, and new ways to communicate online, experts say we’ve unwittingly – or in some cases very deliberately – socially distanced ourselves out of a social life. Some say the silver lining is that we’ve been cured of Fomo, others say it heralds a widening of the already growing loneliness gap. So has everyone Marie Kondoed their mates, and what does this mean for the future of friendship?
Bryan and his wife have two children, aged six and four. They haven’t really made any new friends in the past two years, and they dropped out of contact with a couple of close friends. “Just through no energy, nothing to talk about, no social setting, or parent life commitments.” The couple thought they might make new friends when their eldest started primary school but rolling lockdowns stymied those opportunities. Meanwhile, there is one friend Bryan doesn’t know how to approach. “It’s the one that hurts the most – but I think maybe I thought the friendship was stronger than it was,” he says. “Nothing bad happened … I just … had to stop trying to make social things happen.”
Roger Patulny, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wollongong, says a lot of people “got very serious and they focused on the people most important to them in their lives”.
“So there was sort of a bunkering down … The difficulty now is adjusting to coming out of that, and reengaging in those more distant connections.”
It’s possible that Bryan was pruned, or that he subconsciously made the cut himself. Now, many people like Bryan genuinely don’t know where to start when it comes to rebuilding their social lives. We’re caught between re-embracing the office, the gym, the classroom and wanting to resist these places entirely. The incidental friendships of those spaces, along with the opportunity to make new friends, is still not a given, and effort needs to be made to reach out and rebuild.
Patulny and colleague Marlee Bower from the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney have surveyed more than 2,000 Australians over the past two years to capture a collective picture of people’s interactions, lifestyles and plans during and after lockdown. Given Australia’s early, if temporary, exit from lockdown last year, it offers a unique glimpse not just about Australians’ experience during lockdown but importantly, and pertinently, many months post-lockdown.
Some key findings came out of the study, says Patulny. “Social networks have become more insular and bonding-oriented, plus particular groups of people were more vulnerable to losing friends, including singles, or those with social anxiety, physical and mental disabilities – anyone lacking ‘prior social capital’. Then there were the people who were caught at major intersections of their life journey – think finishing school/starting uni/having kids; they could be more vulnerable to long-term disconnection and loneliness.”
Like Bryan with his child starting school, Reggie was unlucky enough to be hovering at a “life intersection” when the pandemic hit. She completed year 12 in 2020. The opportunity to make or cement friendships has been curtailed especially severely for young people. “The fear that we have missed out on so much … Makes me want to be in a million places at one time,” she says.
But as with any aspect of this pandemic, the most vulnerable members of the community have suffered the biggest fallout. “Those lacking physical health, social capital and digital interactive skills are already more marginalised and at greater risk of loneliness in the post-Covid-19 world,” Patulny warns.
It’s too early to tell whether that has the potential to “grow into entrenched cultures of loneliness, or an expanded ‘loneliness gap’”, but even the general signs pre-pandemic point to people having fewer friends. Thirty years ago, 33% of US adults reported having 10 or more close friends, not counting relatives. Now, 13% say that.
People already had less time to invest in friendships (one 2018 study says it takes 50 hours together to make a casual friend, and 90 hours before you consider them a good friend) but the unique social dilemmas imposed by the pandemic could have serious long-term consequences for some people.
Melbourne-based counsellor Monica spoke to many single people who were worried in the midst of lockdown about whether they’d be picked to be in a bubble or asked to join a picnic. Restrictions on the number of humans interacting meant grown adults were once again reduced to the schoolyard dilemma of picking their one best friend. “Often they weren’t asked, and they were too afraid to take the initiative to ask anyone else themselves,” says Monica. “That perceived rejection, real or otherwise, has now really dented their confidence going back out into the world.”
Pat struggled with social connection and loneliness pre-pandemic and is now trying to find avenues where they can make connections after lockdowns. They’re not having much luck so far. “It’s funny, actually, I didn’t feel lonely at all during lockdown – but as soon as things opened up this year and last, it started up again.”
For many older people cut off from families and traditional get-togethers with friends, the pandemic offered a crash course in online communication, in a way that could continue to shape how they keep in touch with people. Research from the Australian Communications and Media Authority shows that the number of people aged 75 and over using social media and emails to connect doubled.
Without the physical context of the cafe, the office or the gym, people found other ways to, almost instantly, rank and order our friends. There were the dozens of designated WhatsApp groups, the few friends you pinged with random texts about recipes or dogs, the handful of people you’d DM on Instagram, family you’d fight with in the Facebook comments, colleagues doomed to Zoom, and the one friend you might actually pick up the phone to. So where do those friends rank now?
It helps to start by asking ourselves exactly what friends are for. Countless studies tell us why we need them, including linking them to the health of our hearts. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle might offer some clues. Friends were central to his overall conception of what constitutes a good life, and what it means to be human.
But even the philosopher ranked his pals into three different types of friendship: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and “friendships of the good”. Co-workers and classmates fall under friendships of utility. A friend that sparks joy comes under friendships of pleasure – the friends of love affairs, book clubs, footy teams. But most important of all are those friendships of the good, which are based upon mutual respect, admiration and a strong desire to “aid and assist the other person because one recognises an essential goodness in them”. These top-shelf companions have most sustained us in the past two years, and they’re also the ones we’re most keen to keep.
Patulny and Bower’s study finds that “rather than experiencing a wholesale loss in connections and increased loneliness, many instead consolidated networks, and shifted from broad, locally-focused bridging networks towards more selective, online, bonding networks”. For many, a shared experience of a deeply traumatic time has either solidified existing friendships or forged new significant friends.
Stephanie made local friends for the first time during the pandemic. Parents from her children’s school, who hadn’t known each well, started spilling their guts on WhatsApp once they went into lockdown. Then Stephanie’s young daughter contracted Covid. “They were the first to drop things, share information with the school and protect our family. Local friends are a new thing for me … I think it’s easier to become deep friends more quickly, to say I’m not doing OK and to be more open for others to say the same. It’s cut to the core of people for me.”
Rose lived alone throughout the pandemic. “It was about vulnerability. I realised once I opened up about what I was going through, that created room for my friends to open up too. Being real with each other through Covid brought us closer. During lockdowns, I used socials a lot to connect. But now I love socialising in person, more than before. I’m normally introverted, but iso was too lonely, so I’ve swung in the other direction towards extroversion. I’m throwing parties, where once upon a time I dreaded those. And I’m going out of my way to make new friends.”
But while it’s wonderful to focus on the friendships that enrich us, Patulny and Bower warn that we can’t forget “the cost of potentially increased social and collective loneliness through losing more distant community connections”.
As we all muddle through maintaining a social life while continuing to deal with rolling uncertainty, for some the future of friendship will mean offering people the space to flake on a party, to not text back, to let friends check back in when they’re ready. For others, it’ll mean jumping at any opportunity to meet new mates. Like Bryan and his wife, Melbourne based Cynthia hadn’t really met anyone new over the last couple of years. But she recently struck up a conversation with a stranger at the local cafe, and liked them immediately. At first she tried to play it cool, but eventually she figured “fuck it – I invited them over for a BBQ. Nothing beats a new friend crush, and it’s been a while.”