Emily Hourican on the great Covid friendship cull…[restrict]
Most years, if you fell asleep in January and woke up in December. you’d catch up pretty quick. You might have missed a good party, a hot new box set, maybe a short heat wave, but no more. This year, obviously, is the exception. Anyone opening their eyes now would find a vastly changed landscape. But let’s skip all the things that are temporarily new and strange and nasty, and have a look at the more fundamental shifts. The changes that may be permanent and that will certainly have repercussions.
One of these on my mind right now is friendship, and how Covid may have reshuffled that landscape.
Let’s face it, 2020 hasn’t really been the Year of Friends. For most of us, the limits to social interaction have meant we have concentrated on family, and maybe a few very close friends. But even within that, Covid has redrawn the Venn diagram of these close friendships, leading us to favour those who have approximate levels of anxiety or indifference to the pandemic to our own. By this I mean that we are, mostly, gravitating towards those with a similar outlook. The friend who gets that wearing a mask is important and that social distance is a good idea, rather than the pal who says ‘that’s all nonsense’ and moves in for a great big bear hug.
That bear-hugging friend may be exactly who we need under other circumstances – but right now, their warmth and relaxed approach are not so much comforting as alarming.
But, neither do we want to spend much time with the pal who wipes her hands with antibacterial wipes even fifteen seconds and casts nervous looks around in case that child on the other side of the park might take it into his head to run too close to her while chasing a football; whose expression is distant, even though we are telling her about a major event in our lives, because she’s busy calculating what kind of environment a football might provide for the coronavirus.
Or, maybe that person is exactly who you seek out? The point is that like is gravitating towards like. We are bubbling ourselves with those whose attitude to risk we share.
At the same time, the chances are that you, like me, have hardly seen the wider group of your friends – those many people of whom I am immensely fond, whose company I adore – but who, because there have been very few BBQs, parties, lunches, giant family walks and so on this year I have hardly seen in nearly 11 months now. These are the people I have never met regularly – we don’t make time for each other the way we do with our closest friends – but we talk very happily when we do meet, at the many large social occasions the calendar used to be full of, and that now do not exist.
Now these people may not be on my ‘rule of ten’ list, but that doesn’t mean to say I don’t benefit greatly from having them in my life. They are people whose perspective I always find interesting, who make me laugh, encourage me to think differently, often tell me interesting things I hadn’t known. They are very much part of the texture of my life; a connection with them may be brief, but is always beneficial.
And I miss them.
There’s an obnoxious practise known as the ‘friend audit’ or, more brutally, the ‘friend cull.’ This is the one where we are encouraged to go through our address books every year or so, and delete the numbers of anyone we haven’t seen in over a year, who has cancelled the last two or three scheduled meet-ups, who is, for whatever reason, deemed ‘toxic’ in our lives. The thinking goes that when we prune away all of this ‘dead wood’ we will have more time and energy for the core friendships.
And there is a notion afoot that Covid will do this for us. Act as a kind of targeted weapon of destruction, eliminating the friendships that aren’t viable. There is even a strain of thought that goes ‘well if it hasn’t survived Covid, maybe it’s not a real friendship…’
Or that our tolerance for social interaction might be lower post-Covid, leading us to cut back our friendship circle.
And indeed, Covid might do this very thing. But do we really want it to? (Bar the absolute cow who has never said a nice thing to us in 15 years and yet has somehow clung on… ).
The thing is, I hate the idea of a ‘friend audit’. I have heaps of people who I love, who I never see. Maybe they have changed jobs, moved away, gone back to study chemical engineering, had triplets and are lost in babyland… Whatever. Maybe they just haven’t felt like meeting me the last three times. Doesn’t mean I don’t like them, value them and enjoy their company when we do meet. And sometimes, they come back around, these lapsed friendships. Maybe our lives fall into step again – our children start at the same school, we move closer to one another, we both take up wall-climbing. Suddenly, there they are. And there I am delighted for them to be. Life is long, friendships will wax, and wane, and often wax again, quite organically, if we let them.
Having children changed my friendships dramatically, for a while. And I’m slightly ashamed of this. When my first child was born, 17 years ago, and followed at three-year intervals by two more children, I found that my friendships were shaken up, and they resettled differently. I spent a lot more time with friends who had babies and children of a similar age. Frankly, there is almost nothing more boring than a new mother (I’m sorry, but it’s true; any of us who is honest will admit it)… except to other new mothers. There, it is a marriage of true minds that does not admit impediments. Minute discussions of ‘he woke at ten and fed for half an hour, then went back to sleep for three hours but woke again at half one and fed again…’ Sigh. You see? Most of you are bored already, but any new mother – especially new first-time mothers – might just have pricked up ears at that. No wonder these were the people I sought out. They were the ones on my wavelength.
For nearly ten years, I concentrated what little free time I had to socialise on other parents and their children, and within that there was even a subsection of those parents whose children happened to get on particularly well with mine. These are wonderful people, make no mistake, who have enriched my life no end, as have their children. However, there were others, who did not have children when I did, or who didn’t live close enough to make meeting in the park a bearable plan, or whose little darling loathed mine so that all they did was fight. These people were (are) smart and funny and wonderful – but I barely saw them for years, because the planets of our respective worlds did not align.
Obviously, that’s my fault, for not making it happen. But I don’t think I’m alone. Lazy, maybe, but not alone. And then, a few years ago, something wonderful happened. My children were older and life felt less crowded, and I rediscovered some of these friendships. Once I was no longer obsessively chronicling hours of sleep and feeding routines, all over again we had everything in common.
Imagine if I had jettisoned these friendships? It would have been very much my loss.
Because there’s another thing – if we spend all our time in a small intense group, are we all going to find ourselves in echo chambers? Friends influence one another, over time, we fall into step with one another’s views, or we stop listening – really listening – to the different opinions, because we have heard them so many times before. We need to stop that happening. We need to stay fresh. We need to be challenged.