It’s not often that a news story confirms my deepest fears and anxieties. When the headlines seem to get scarier every day, I’ve learned to laugh off “Everything You Love Gives You Cancer!” or “World To End On Sunday, Build Underground Shelters, Urges Government!” But today I read a story in the paper that made my flesh creep and my blood run cold. According to new research, only half of our friends actually really like us. This means that every time I’ve waited for hours for a reply to a WhatsApp message, or been missed off a group email, or arrived at a party and wondered whether the room really did go quiet for a second, I probably wasn’t being just paranoid. All of my worries were entirely justified.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied 84 subjects and asked them to rank how close they felt to each person in the class on a 0-5 scale, with 5 meaning “they are my best friend”. Ninety-four per cent of the subjects expected their rankings to be reciprocated; 53 per cent were. In The New York Times, Kate Murphy considers the result with other similar friendship studies and suggests the wider reciprocity rate could be as low as 34 per cent.
How can we not know who our good friends are? The definition of friendship is broad, but most of us know who we trust, who makes us laugh and who we love to spend time with. I’d hope that we’re all smart enough to seek out people who treat us as equals, responding to us with as much respect, attention and affection as we give them. Also, if we don’t want to be friends with someone, surely we’re grown up enough to give them civil signals – and be proud and perceptive enough to get the hint if someone doesn’t want to hang out. Successful romantic relationships depend on being able to interpret and reciprocate feelings, and we more or less manage to work out what’s happening with our love lives. Yet it seems that we fall short when it comes to applying that logic to friendships.
It’s an obvious excuse, but I blame technology. Thanks to social networking, we’re deep in the era of the false friend. When it’s possible to follow someone online and know everything they choose to reveal without having a proper conversation, the boundaries get blurred. An old work acquaintance posted a beautiful selection of her wedding photos on Instagram, and I struggle to remind myself that I don’t actually know her that well, and I didn’t see her get married.
It’s an obvious excuse, but I blame technology. Thanks to social networking, we’re deep in the era of the false friend
I have a core group of beloved university friends who moved to London when I did. When we arrived, almost a decade ago, we’d spend nearly every weekend together, as well as drinking, dancing and going for dinner during the week. Now we just about manage to hang out once a month, thanks to an enforced dinner date, but we talk to each other on WhatsApp every day. I love the sharing of gossip, inspirational Olympic videos and giant cat pictures, but I’m aware that we no longer have the space or time to enjoy those deep, nourishing conversations about everything and nothing, and the instant connectivity is promoting an illusion of friendship. It makes me a lazy mate, because I can tell myself that we’re regularly in touch, and I don’t need to go any deeper.
Then there are the friends who are far away. I cherish them in my heart, and think of them often, but I’m crap at picking up the phone. I have a good friend living in LA, and another one in Leeds, and I’m just as bad at staying in touch with both of them. I wonder if they still think of me as a “good friend” or just some girl they used to me mates with in a previous era of their lives.
I’d love to write a rallying cry. Tell your friends how much they mean to you! Draw your people near! But sadly, I don’t think it’s that simple. Perhaps our lives have never been more full of friends, or opportunities to stay in touch with them, but I suspect many of us have passed the point of no return, spending our days online and staying in touch in a superficial way, or talking to people that we’d love to be better friends with, if only we won the Lottery, quit our jobs, hired a nanny and created the eight-day week. Friend-wise, I dream about a delicious dinner with desert wine and a cheese course, but I’m full because I keep picking at the buffet, spoiling myself with an endless supply of tasty mate canapés. Social media also makes us count our friends, turning us all into teenagers, prioritising popularity over genuine friendship. The conflation between friends and followers is also confusing. Instead of interacting with each other, we have a space to broadcast livestreams of our lives. Modern friends like, and share – but do they speak to each other?
I fantasise about KonMarie-ing my friendships, or perhaps amalgamating them, genetically engineering five good pals into a single human being, just so I can have more time with the people I love. Obviously, that’s not an option. What I can do is get better at appreciating quality over quantity by acknowledging my time with my friends is scarce, and it’s a waste to spend our first hour together grumbling “Why do we never do this?”
If I did my own survey and discovered that half of my friends really didn’t like me, I’d be heartbroken, but perhaps it wouldn’t be a wholly bad thing. It would force me to acknowledge where I’ve failed as a friend, and to accept that maintaining a friendship is difficult. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar posited that most humans can maintain a maximum of 150 stable relationships. If I was a really good friend, I’d acknowledge that there are people in my life who are worth much more than I am possibly able to give them. But I’m starting to realise it might be better to have five friends who love you than 50 who think you’re OK and 50 who really can’t stand you.