So on Thursday I was stood up by a friend. Her excuse was as flimsy as a philanderer’s promise and it was her third last-minute no-show. Sitting at the restaurant fuming into a ramekin of bar olives I wondered if it wasn’t time to defriend.
It’s a concept many of you relate to. I know this because “unfriending” has just been deemed Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, and presumably because more than just a few of us are talking about dumping redundant friends. (Oxford debated whether to go with “unfriend” or the social media-speak version “defriend”; proper English won out.) But my question, as always, is whether a decluttering of your black book – like you might a drawer of kitchen appliance warranties – makes life better. Come take a walk with me on this one.
- Truth is, I have too many friends. Again, you get what I mean. Our circles have expanded, we’re stupidly bogged down in life admin and many of us have become friend whores, accumulating hundreds (thousands?) of friends on Twitter and Facebook. Exerts call these “weak ties”. We had no idea this would happen when we signed up. But that’s what technology does – it moves faster than us. Now, we’re swamped with weak ties.
- I’m constantly saying to people I run into whose friendship I’ve neglected, “We really should catch up”, while thinking, “Oh, God, not another thing I have to follow up on”. This ubiquitous “catch up” line is the latest signpost of how unbalanced we’ve become, don’t you think? Boy, does it make us cringe.
- Indeed, an oft-quoted scientific study has found humans are hard-wired to handle a maximum of 150 relationships at a time. Exceed this “Dunbar’s Number”, as it’s termed, and we don’t cope. Right now, I’m hovering 3200 friends above my DN.
- Now, let’s backtrack to my parents’ day. My Mum and Dad had a dozen friends or so who all had kids and fondue parties together. Then there were “the neighbours” and the “playgroup mums”. So, three circles of friends on the same wavelength. Simple. This generation were lucky to reach their Dunbar number in a lifetime.
- Thus, this friender-bender we’re experiencing has prompted a stream of self-help experts to suggest we defer to how it was in our parents’ day. Would you actually have a coffee – or brass goblet of Chablis at a theatre restaurant – with this Facebook pal? No? Then defriend. Another tip I stumbled on this week: create separate sites for your weak ties and close friends. I contemplated this for the time it took it to realize that that just created more life admin hell. Then this: Suicidemachine is a site that can conduct friend annihilation for you by wiping – sniper-like – your social networks without a trace. I hovered over the button. But stalled. Here’s why.
- Our weak ties can turn strong.I’ve actually developed incredibly intimate friendships via Twitter with people I’d never have met otherwise. I became friends with a guy from sharing similar views on current affairs, and humour and wound up holidaying with him, his wife and their mates over summer.
- Our weak ties can keep loose ends together. Those (ostensibly inane) status updates allow us to at least know what we’ve been up to in each others’ absence. “Oh, you’ve weaned Jack off the dummy!” “Bugger that the aphids took to the basil.”And, “Oh, it’s your birthday!” We then buy flowers. Or send condolences. Or whatever.
So, where’s this leave things? Do we need to declutter our relationships of weak ties down to 150? Well, here’s what I arrived at after conferring with nine friends this week. Rather than simplifying friend numbers, it’s probably better to simplify our expectations. Our Dunbar Number is no longer fixed – friends flow in and out, via different forums, as they need to, as we need their connection. The people in our lives, after all, are a merely a reflection of us and where we’re at; when they no longer serve us, they naturally drop off the radar. Or don’t turn up to dinner. We simply need to let them.
Which renders defriending unnecessary. If we let relationship flow as they need to, and simply gravitate to intimacy that serves us, as we find it, we’ll probably find our Dunbar number naturally reinstates.
As I fumed into my olives on Thursday I sent out a Tweet about my predicament. A random colleague was in the area and dropped in for a sherry. We would never have met otherwise.