Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Topic of the Day: You Don’t Have as Many Friends as You Think You Do

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I love my friends, and I love having friends, and I will never stop investing time and energy into maintaining close friendships and fostering new ones. But as I turn 40 in a few weeks and manage the responsibilities of parenting two young children and maintaining a strong marriage and contributing to my community and society in meaningful ways, I have realized that there’s only so much time and energy to go around and that I have to keep the quantity of my close friendships pretty limited or I risk spreading myself too thin and sacrificing the quality of those friendships. Obviously, this is not unique to me, and researchers have been studying modern friendships, the role social media plays in our (mis)conception of friendship, and how both an unwillingness to lean on others and having limited time affect quality friendships. It may surprise you that you actually don’t have as many reciprocal friendships as you think you do…

Studies conducted over the last decade show that as many as half the friends we consider close would not categorize us the same way:

Alex Pentland, a social scientist at M.I.T. and co-author of a recent study titled ‘Are You Your Friends’ Friend?,’ said it could be that ‘the possibility of nonreciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image.’ But the problem may have more to do with confusion over what friendship is. Ask people to define friendship — even researchers like Mr. Pentland who study it — and you’ll get an uncomfortable silence followed by ‘er’ or ‘um.’

How do you define friendship? For me, a friend is someone who enriches my life, emotionally supports me, makes time for me, and helps to create a sense of community (and this often means that I befriend other parents in my neighborhood, especially since I spend so much time with my family and it’s nice to be able to combine family time and friend time, though, of course, I also appreciate friend time away from my family). I also like this idea of friendships: “they shape us and create other dimensions through which to see the world.” Yes! And this: “It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence,” said Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship. Absolutely!

Still, without or without a clear definition of friendship, there are other reasons our quantity of true, reciprocal friendships is limited:

Because time is limited, so, too, is the number of friends you can have, according to the work of the British evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. He describes layers of friendship, where the topmost layer consists of only one or two people, say a spouse and best friend with whom you are most intimate and interact daily. The next layer can accommodate at most four people for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain. Out from there, the tiers contain more casual friends with whom you invest less time and tend to have a less profound and more tenuous connection. Without consistent contact, they easily fall into the realm of acquaintance. You may be friendly with them but they aren’t friends.

The kind of high-quality friendships that shape you and create new dimensions through which you see the world and affect who and what you are requires time, and “the vulnerability of caring as well as revealing things about yourself that don’t match the polished image in your Facebook profile or Instagram feed,” said Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, and author of the new book “On Friendship.” “Trusting that your bond will continue, and might even be strengthened, despite your shortcomings and inevitable misfortunes,” he said, “is a risk many aren’t willing to take.”

So, whom do you decide to take that risk with? Whom do you allow yourself to be vulnerable with and to whom do you reveal things about yourself that you don’t share on social media with your hundreds of other “friends”?
Hopefully, they are the people who make time for you, whose “company enlivens, enriches and maybe even humbles you,” whom you would miss and who would miss you.

How many close, first- or second-tier friends would you say you have? Do you feel confident they’d categorize you the same way? And how do you define these kinds of distinctions in friendships?

19 comments… add one
  • avatar

    dinoceros August 10, 2016, 1:02 pm

    I think I learned a lot about this about friendships from moving a lot. I’m single, so it’s not so much about free time, but about who is willing to put the effort in when you’re not down the street. Everywhere I’ve lived I’ve had these amazing friends, and each time I’ve moved, I’ve only come out of it with one or two from each location who I actually remain close with. I think it really makes you think because you realize that as great of friends as you are with someone right now, who knows if you’ll even be talking to them in two years if you move away.

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  • avatar

    ktfran August 10, 2016, 1:14 pm

    This is so interesting. And so true. I’ve made quite a few friends in my adulthood, but lately, I’ve wondered how close some of those friends actually are. For instance, I was single most of the last eight years, I didn’t date much, by choice. So, I cultivated LOTS of friendships. Now that I’m in a serious relationship, friendships have changed. It has helped me figure out who are true friends.

    Tier 1: So easy. My best friend since 8th grade. We know each other in and out. I’d say we’re soul mates. We just get one another. We’ve had ups and downs and have weathered not speaking for three years, but we were able to pick up where we left off. I would do anything for her and vice versa. We don’t talk or e-mail often, but it’s ok. I know I can always count on her and vice versa.

    Tier 2: I’d say I have three (maybe 4) tier 2 friends. These are also people I know I can count on. Who I’m myself around, and vice versa, and who always make me smile. We text or IM several days a week and the two that live near me I see a couple times a month. The other lives away and I see once or twice a year. We share similar humor, ideas and an outlook on life. Each one brings out a different part of me, and I’m confident they’d say the same about me. I think we all just share a special closeness and can also weather life changes.

    Tier 3: These are people who I see often, but not people I’d count on to be there for me if I was in a pinch. I have quite a few of these friends. Maybe like 15 or so. I actually probably see them more than my Tier 1 and Tier 2 friends, but IDK, it just doesn’t feel as authentic with them. I have to try harder which is weird to say. I probably give more than I get in return with most of these friends.

    I do send all the above holiday cards with nice, handwritten notes.

    Tier 4: Acquaintances who I occasionally grab dinner or drinks with. There are a few of these too.

    Family: My two sisters and I are close. So, they’re probably also Tier 1. Then there are about 7 of us female cousins (including my sisters and I) on my mom’s side (my mom’s sisters daughters). There’s a 10-year spread in age difference, but we’re fairly close still. I vacationed with four of them earlier this year. They’d be considered Tier 2.

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  • MaterialsGirl

    MaterialsGirl August 10, 2016, 1:26 pm

    I have friends in all these categories and some have moved from one to another and back again depending on whats been going on in our lives. I would even break it down into tier one friends for immediate material emergencies and tier one friends for soul and emotional emergencies.

    very good reminder, wendy!

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    • RoobyBooty

      RoobyBooty August 10, 2016, 2:51 pm

      I agree about the divide between material/emotional as well! I was thinking this while reading the article, about how I chose to contact two different people for a health emergency: I asked one person to call me an Uber to the hospital, and I texted another for advice and emotional support in figuring out how to phrase things with my doctor.
      Of course, the person who called me the uber followed up with me later and wished me well, but they don’t know what’s really going on.

      I think in some ways it might come down to their own strengths or resources? My friend who called the uber for me is in a good financial position, but a somewhat bad mental state, and I can’t stand the idea of burdening them with my own shit. My advice friend is kind of a happy hippy and is able to give emotions freely at this time.
      Does that make sense?

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      • avatar

        dinoceros August 10, 2016, 9:24 pm

        I think it makes a lot of sense. I’ve also found that certain personalities also tend to transcend tiers for me. Once after one of my best friends moved away, I needed a ride to and from a same-day surgery and I asked a co-worker’s wife who I’d hung out with socially a few times. I had a couple of friends who I was closer to, but this was someone I knew didn’t mind getting up early and seemed much more adult-like. She had a very open personality, so it didn’t feel weird telling her about my medical problems. Plus, she and her husband had moved from out-of-state, so I felt like she could relate to not really having family around.

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      • MaterialsGirl

        MaterialsGirl August 11, 2016, 9:51 am

        Yes for sure. And for me, running friends (while on the run anyway) end up in that Tier 1 category even if I’ve only recently met them. Mostly because runners just tend to pour out whatever is on their minds or hearts. Of course there are some I wouldnt’ share with, but most people I’ve had very deep conversations with. Church of the Long Run!

        I was thinking more and more on this and since my divorce and subsequent remarriage, I’ve identified better the friends and their purposes. Some friends were lost and some became better friends because of the support they were able to provide.

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  • avatar

    snoopy128 August 10, 2016, 2:25 pm

    This is so poignant for me today. I actively avoided reading that article last night when it popped up in my newsfeed. I’ve been in my new city for a year and realize I need to start developing more tier 1 and 2 friends. I have some great friends who live far away and I miss having someone I can easily call up and just invite over to hang out with. I think I need to work on this in the fall.

    Also, trying to come up with a guest list for wedding planning is making me evaluate my friendships. It’s a little sad to see how few really close relationships I have right now, but I think that’s par for the course having moved to two new provinces in the last three years.

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    • avatar

      ktfran August 10, 2016, 2:37 pm

      I’m having the opposite problem. We’re thinking about what kind of wedding we want. He for sure doesn’t want anything big. I wanted medium size… like simple ceremony somewhere fun then a nice brunch or dinner… but I can’t do medium because where do I cut without hurting feelings? So… it looks like it will be just the two of us. Our immediate families and grandparents, and possibly my one “tier one” friend and his “tier one(s)”.

      Honestly, meetup.com was a great source of friend making for me. Seriously.

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      • avatar

        snoopy128 August 10, 2016, 3:22 pm

        Through my running group I have a bunch of tier 3 people. It’s just hard for me to move those people from tier 3 to 2. Like I could easily feel a BBQ with tier 3 friends…but would be harder pressed to put together a more intimate dinner party with 6-8 people that. I feel like I’m on the fringe..invited and included to bigger things, but not to smaller get togethers.

        I like the idea of meetup.com…but I can’t fathom adding any other commitments on top of work, training (15-20hrs a week, depending on whether we have a race or not), puppy, and the few friend activities I already do. Although, it’s at the point where maybe I should be doing something like meetup so that I make making (closer) friends a priority.

        In all, I’m just not great at taking that leap and making a smaller, closer group of friends now that I’m no longer in a university environment.

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      • MaterialsGirl

        MaterialsGirl August 11, 2016, 10:12 am

        !!!! KTFRAN!!!!! Saaaan fraaann do it!

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        ktfran August 11, 2016, 11:16 am

        I’m strongly considering it! Your wedding was so lovely.

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      • MaterialsGirl

        MaterialsGirl August 11, 2016, 12:52 pm

        So do it. SOOOO do it. and then just immediately go to Hawaii or napa or portland

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        ktfran August 11, 2016, 1:15 pm

        We’re taking a long weekend in Napa in Oct. Maybe we should get hitched, come back, and yell surprise! We’re married! Heads would roll.

        Actually, we’re holding off until next year because we both have new leases for our apartments (April) and neither is big enough to have one move into the other. Is it 2017 yet?

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  • honeybeenicki

    honeybeenicki August 10, 2016, 2:39 pm

    I am all about quality instead of quantity for friendship.
    My tier one is my husband and my best friend since 4th grade. She and I have been through everything together and will always have each other’s backs.
    My tier two probably only has 2 people – a good friend from work and another one I met through a group I attended while on maternity leave.
    After those, I have a pretty good chunk of people who are friends (kind of) and acquaintances. I don’t usually see them one on one, but do occasionally. Usually its if we get together as a group (especially if its the people I met in the same group mentioned above and we get the babies together).

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    • avatar

      RedRoverRedRover August 10, 2016, 8:38 pm

      Yeah, I dropped people who weren’t close friends a long time ago. Like, 10 or 15 years ago. I just don’t have the mental energy. I have my best friend in Tier 1, another good friend in Tier 2, and my husband’s friends in Tier 3. I have other work friends and stuff but they’re not people I hang with outside of work. And then of course my husband and parents, who I would consider tier-less. Those are beyond friendships. I guess my siblings and my husband’s family are mostly Tier 2 and 3 depending on the specific person.

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  • avatar

    Cheesecaker2911 August 10, 2016, 5:18 pm

    I know I’m for the most part a better friend than most of the people I’d consider a friend. And if that gap gets to be too great, I stop being their friend. I’m fickle like that and don’t want to waste my time on someone that doesn’t feel the same about me (or if that person is using my friendship to manipulate/spread rumors)
    Tier 1: My husband and my sister. If you’d asked me 5 years ago if my sister would be my best friend, I’d have laughed. Time changes things.
    Tier 2: Probably a couple of my coworkers. I’ve had to demote a few Tier 2 people to the bottom of my tiers this year when I discovered they were only pretending to be my friends for nefarious purposes.
    Lower Tiers: pretty much everyone else. I have trust issues, and most of the rest of the people I know fall into this lower category as they’ve let me down at some point or another. These are the people who only call me when they need something, and disappear when I need the smallest thing (even just a person to talk to). As I’ve mentioned in other places, as I’ve lost the weight and gained confidence, I’ve discovered some people don’t really like me standing up for myself, and so, I don’t want them being major players/partners in my life. Don’t need that crap.

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  • avatar

    Ange August 10, 2016, 5:55 pm

    I have tons of lower tier friends through sport, moving heaps and doing what I can to stay social. I’m generally good fun so I’m in demand for nights out and things like that. I don’t have anyone I can go get coffee with though and that sucks. My best friends – I’d say I have 3 or 4 – live ages away. We just found out we’re moving again at the end of the year to a smallish place that’s largely defence families so it’s going to be a big challenge meeting people I have anything in common with. Still, here hasn’t been very fertile friend ground so it can’t be worse.

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  • avatar

    K August 11, 2016, 10:54 am

    I don’t have any friends that I talk to any day, other than my boyfriend. But I still consider my closest friends Tier 1 – I have 5-6 of those.

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  • Stonegypsy

    Stonegypsy August 11, 2016, 1:05 pm

    I would say I have 3 tier 1 friends, and then it would actually be kind of challenging to categorize people into tiers 2 and 3. Like, in terms of time spent, they’re probably tier 3, but I also share a lot with these people, and we all help each other move and support each other in hard times. It’s a pretty tight-knit friend group, with a bunch of people who are really busy, but we still all hang out at least once a month.

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