I have a few groups of friends that I love and sometimes we go through phases where we all have so much going on that it’s hard to stay connected. This especially pertains to the brain drain of parenting, where all your energy gets really inwardly focused. There are times when it feels like half the group or more is in crisis mode and it’s just an endless cycle of “Ack, that sucks! Thinking of you.” But it’s hard to really DO anything because there’s just literally too much immediately in front of me, especially with kids who need extra support. It leads to a lot of unintentional fracturing, like misunderstandings and people feeling like they had a crisis and no one was really there for them.
This feels a bit like a phase of adult friendships, where life gets bigger and the stakes feel higher.
How do I stay connected with friends when people are sick or having babies and I can’t get it together enough to bring them dinner like I want to? How do I stay connected with friends who I love dearly when our lives are so drastically different and our opportunities to connect are so infrequent that it feels like we are drifting quickly apart? I feel as though little things are getting in the way of keeping people I love in my life, and I’m trying to figure out if I’m contributing to that in a way I should probably hold myself accountable for.
I want to tell you right off the top that this level of concern for your friends makes me feel as though you are an amazing person. I have similar struggles with feeling like I can’t be hugging everyone all the time, which is pretty much my dream. It lead me to read about Dunbar’s Number, an estimation of how many stable relationships modern-day humans are able to maintain.
Any guesses as to what that number is? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s 150.
When I first heard that number, it sounded like a lot. But then a split second later, it sounded impossibly small. As someone who has been living and working online since dialling into a BBS in 1989, my Facebook friends list sits well over 3000 people. Are only 5% of these people my actual friends? Once I thought about it, I had to admit that more than once a week, I’ll see a piece of huge life news about someone and wail, “WHO ARE YOU???” at my screen.
In order to feel less overwhelmed, I recently made a “Close Friends” filter, which required going through every person I am Facebook friends with, and determining which folks I thought of as actual friends (whether I knew them in person or not). That number sat just above 120 people. Once I factored in friends or family who are not on Facebook, I had something very close to 150.
Great job, Dunbar.
Social media is a fantastic triple-edged sword; it a) lets us keep in touch with countless people who would have fallen off of our radar, b) makes us feel obligated to keep up with countless people who would have fallen off of our radar, and c) provides a lot of really specific and life-changing ways of keeping people we actually care about from falling off of our radar.
Research shows that friendship requires three things to blossom and thrive: “proximity; repeated/unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” Luckily, the Internet provides great ways to do just that. Here are some tactics that have helped me keep my friendships strong:
Spend some time reading this piece by Erin Wisti. Three years ago, she was sent a group chat message that began as a way to report a Ryan Reynolds sighting to her friends. Three years later, the group is still active. She says the group chat saved her life, by keeping her in a steady supply of chatter both in-depth and inane, while she was at her lowest and most isolated point.
At any given moment, I have three or four active group chats going. I’m not gonna lie – at least two of them started by me being like, “Can you believe the bullshit [so and so] is pulling right now on Twitter?” After eye rolling about a shared acquaintance for a bit, the conversation drifted to other things and never stopped. It turns my Facebook messages into a rad party that I can poke my head into when I have a while, have some hilarious and/or heartfelt talks, and get or give pep talks about the bleak world outside of our rad chat windows. Especially in the case of a friend having a tough time, if she shares what she is going through with the group chat, someone else can hop in and offer support, even if you are busy chasing kids around the house. You can get caught up when you get back, and start a second wave of support and checking in.
Not every group conversation takes off, but the ones that do function like an office water cooler, except it’s with people you actually like. They need to be small enough to be manageable, but big enough that they can kind of chug along even if one or two people go quiet for a day or so.
Creation of “close friends” lists
As I mentioned what likely feels like six thousand words ago, I have created a “close friends” Facebook list, which lets me post things filtered so they can only be seen by folks who I would be comfortable sharing that information with. This allows me to have some pretty great brainstorming or support-getting conversations without having to share them with someone who was in my 10th grade math class.
As an added bonus, when I click on my “close friends” list in the left sidebar, my newsfeed becomes a magical place that only shows me the Facebook activity of people I actually love and trust! Facebook becomes a much less busy place, and I have a better chance of not missing out on important details my beloveds are sharing.
We all share articles to our friends Facebook pages, and those are great conversation-starters that absolutely help us learn more about what our friends think of things. But sometimes every posted article feels like an assignment to read something and offer thoughtful commentary. It’s so easy to intend to come back to something, or miss it entirely, which isn’t very friendship boosting.
Enter the shared Pinterest board. It is a great way to show your friends some cool pictures when they are needing a boost or distraction, and something about the fact that it’s images instead of words makes it feel much more gentle and nurturing than an article posted on a Facebook wall. It creates a lovely collection of “Oh hey, this super pretty/cool/weird thing made me think of you” things that you can scroll through over and over, without much expectation of interaction.
If you want to be completely charmed and freaked out, check out the Pinterest board shared by me and my amazing friend Mariel, who illustrates this advice column. Looking at it is like taking a little peek into her brain, and it’s so nice to wake up some mornings to discover she’s pinned a bunch of cool stuff overnight for me to enjoy without expectation.
Facebook groups are able to sustain a lot more threads (and participants) than a Facebook group chat. I can honestly say that Facebook groups changed my life in the last year. Basically, get the five best people you know to add the five best people they know, and so on and so on until you have an impeccably curated group of a few hundred people.
These groups can be focused on everything from similarly shitty childhoods to trying to learn to do makeup. Most of all, they provide safe, challenging, utterly unique spaces that can be accessed any time. My friends and I use these groups as a lasting support system, sounding board, or group of friends in a way that other social media platforms haven’t yet capitalized on in quite the same way since LiveJournal communities back in olden times. (ILU, LJ.)
I am not really a Skype person. I get too self conscious staring at a giant version of my face on my screen. But my friends who use it to keep in touch with friends who are not me say that it is the most like IRL interaction of any computer-aided form of communication. You can read facial expressions, see each other’s cats wander in and out of frame, and admire each other’s decor.
Shared Google calendars
This is pretty intimate, but if you have any friends who you don’t mind knowing when you have a Pap test or a couples therapy appointment, sharing your calendar with them can be really perfect. For faraway friends, it helps them keep a picture of your life in their head. But for close-by friends it is even better, because it lets them know when you have time to hang out, and send you invites to spend that time together. This is much more effective than having an endless “we should get together soon” loop with someone, only to have entire seasons change while you remain two ships passing on the Bloor line.
To that end, I cannot say enough for standing dates, Skype and otherwise. Planning things can be so overwhelming, but once something is anchored in your calendar, you can fit other things around it while being protective of that friendship time. I am at my happiest when my weekly swimming plans, writing dates, and visits to Allan Gardens are chugging along uninterrupted.
Before I sign off, I also want to draw literally everyone’s attention to Sarah Von Bargen’s incredible list of 15 ways to catch up with friends that aren’t grabbing coffee or a cocktail. It’s just the best.
Your life sounds really full, and I hope all of your friends are as understanding about everything you are juggling as you are for them. No matter what you do, there is no way to never have something fall through the cracks, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t a good pal.
Your friends are lucky to have you!
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