How the pandemic changed friendships

The past year saw many social circles shrink to a skeleton crew - but perhaps that is not a bad thing

It is not as if 2020 was a year without friends.

We raised toasts on Zoom birthday parties, organised trivia nights on Google Meet and spent more time waiting in lines, a great place to make new friends.

I mean, I made one. His name is Josh and he is a writer who lives in my neighbourhood.

With our families thrown together into a pod last March, Josh became a lifeline to sanity as other friends disappeared. We grilled burgers and fretted about politics while our children played. Crisis created a closeness.

But spending all that time with Josh made me realise how much the rest of my social life had winnowed.

Many friends vanished into pods of their own. Gone was Tuesday poker night. Gone were the dinner parties with the couples we saw quarterly. Gone were seemingly half of the parent friends from our sons' schools.

For many of us, the pandemic was a great social winnowing, a paring down of our circles of friends to a skeleton crew of essentials - those who happened to be proximate, available, in our circle of trust.

Everyone else? Well, they were all on hold until "all this is over".

With Americans receiving two million vaccine doses daily, that day may be nearing. The assumption is we are counting the minutes until we get back out there, to hurtle into jubilant mobs like carnival revellers.

For many, that is true. Maybe not everybody.

Stanford University psychology professor Laura Carstensen says college students and young single adults are most likely to revert to the "pre-pandemic mode" of collecting friends to pursue mates and build careers.
Stanford University psychology professor Laura Carstensen says college students and young single adults are most likely to revert to the "pre-pandemic mode" of collecting friends to pursue mates and build careers. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A year is a long time. People aged, people moved. People got married, people got divorced. People changed, people died. The social webs that connected people were stretched to the limit.

"Everyone has changed the way he or she interacts," said sociology and gerontology professor Rebecca Adams from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who studies peer networks.

Over the past year, she said, we stopped exploring, often limiting our rare encounters to tiny groups of trusted intimates. We did not get new ones.

"If you can't go out to public places," she said, "you're not picking up new casual friends, and the casual friends you already have are just going to drift off your radar."

It is only reasonable to wonder if we will be able to revive all those friendships that spent a year on hold - and if we even want to.

ACQUAINTANCES, CASUAL FRIENDS OR BEST PALS

Think back to the Neverland of 2019. Think of the parties you went to, the picnics, the club nights. Where are all those people now? How much do you miss them?

It depends. Friends generally fall into tiers, like those food-pyramid posters - except in this case, the tiny triangle at the pinnacle is where the good stuff is, your best friends who provide the most nourishment.

The broad base of the pyramid represents the acquaintances, the kinda-friends, the friends of friends and amiable whoevers that are great to sample at a party, but do not make a full meal.

Such loose acquaintances can be categorised as "weak tie" relationships, to summon a term coined by Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter in the 1970s.

They were the first to go during the pandemic as shops, restaurants and offices closed.

If the friendly barista is gone, another will likely take her place. But what about second-and third-tier friends? The colleague you gossiped with over drinks before she got laid off during the pandemic; the parents you lingered to talk to at school drop-off.

"Casual friendships are based primarily on proximity and convenience, rather than a true connection," said former psychiatry professor Irene Levine, previously of the New York University school of medicine, who writes about friendship.

The very concept of proximity seems laughable. According to research firm Unacast, which analysed GPS data from millions of cell phones, Americans gathered in groups 80 per cent less than they did before the pandemic.

SAVOURING DEEPER RELATIONSHIPS

What about our closest friends? Wall Street types talk about a "flight to quality" - the tendency of investors to abandon riskier stocks for blue chips during a crisis.

The same might be said about friendships during the pandemic, as we winnowed our portfolio of friends down to known quantities.

Personal tragedy, in a year full of them, sometimes had the same effect.

"I always kept my wider web around me as a safety net, just in case," said Ms Amy Lin, 31, a teacher in Canada.

In August last year, she lost her husband suddenly, to a non-Covid-19-related illness.

Of the month after her loss, she said: "I had to make very specific choices about who I spent time with, and the people I did spend time with have had to carry a really big weight in terms of my grief."

That included a best friend who drove three hours to pick her up at the hospital where her husband died - and the friends who walked with her in freezing temperatures when she needed to talk.

"I don't know if I would have found this kind of radical friendship without these harrowing circumstances," she said.

"My best friends just so completely showed up."

THE RIGHT SIZE OF FRIENDS

The weather is brightening, restaurants, bars and stadiums are refilling, and Covid-19 rates have plummeted nationally.

Time to get the old gang back together, right?

For plenty of people, sure. But it is not always as simple as that.

"We're approaching an ending, and when people approach endings, they tend to savour instead of explore," said Stanford University psychology professor Laura Carstensen.

Faced with the closing of a chapter, she said, we tend to "focus on known people, known prospects, not on the expansive, the new. They're not thinking, 'Let's go try out new things'".

College students and young single adults, Prof Carstensen said, are most likely to slip back into pre-pandemic mode, collecting friends to maximise their opportunities to pursue mates, build careers and find their place in the world.

Others learnt how to appreciate the simple calm of it all.

"There was finally permission from the culture at large that you don't have to show up at everything," said Ms Lisa Cochran, 39, a stay-at-home mother who works part-time at her husband's plumbing company.

"There's a freedom there."

Even extroverts learnt lessons in pulling back.

Ms LaTonya Yvette, 31, a stylist and blogger in Brooklyn, used to hold giant parties.

But she has come to savour the intimate friendships that blossomed the past year, including with a neighbour who sang with her on her stoop every night during the darkest days last spring.

"I'm so thankful to have more emotional space," she said. "I don't see that changing. I don't necessarily want it to."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2021, with the headline 'How the pandemic changed friendships'. Subscribe