Hi, I’m Dan, nice to meet you. Now that we’ve been introduced, I have a couple of personal questions to ask you: how many friends have you got and how often do you see them? Yes, you heard.
According to Oxford University anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the average person’s social circle is 150 people (interestingly the same size as a typical community in hunter-gatherer societies as well as that of the average village in the Domesday Book). There’s an inner core of five and an additional layer of 10 – some of whom are likely to be family members – which constitutes the central group, the people you see and speak to most often. Then there are about another 35 in the next circle with whom you stay in regular touch. And another 100 on the outside who might get a Christmas card or occasional text promising to ‘meet up soon’ even though you both know you won’t.
What about best mates – the type you could share anything with? While the average number of Facebook ‘friends’ is apparently 130, most adults have just two people they consider to be close friends, according to a 2011 study from Cornell University. Two.
“We are shallow, superficial voyeurs, lazily ‘keeping in touch’ with a scrolling forefinger”
We are each connected to more people than at any time in human history thanks to the digital tentacles of social media. Yet as we get older and busier (and our Netflix watch-list gets longer), we become less engaged than ever before. We are shallow, superficial voyeurs, skimming the surface, lazily ‘keeping in touch’ with a scrolling forefinger, emoting via emojis. *Single-tear sad face* Writing a one-line WhatsApp or hearting an Instagram post – these are the life-support machines of friendship. They keep it breathing, but mechanically.
A real friendship takes time, of course. It’s a rose garden to be tended not a neglected house plant you forget to water, then throw out. Still, it’s worth it. Survey after survey shows how important meaningful human connections are to our health and happiness. Friends with benefits, indeed. The opposite is also true: disconnection and loneliness hit men harder than women and can have serious consequences. In times of vulnerability – after being divorced or widowed especially – male suicide rates spike. We need the buddy system.
It is a fact of life that you cannot make old friends, only new ones. The hardest thing about moving to a new country – something my wife and I have done three times in the last decade – is forming a solid social circle. We’ve been in New York – famously one of the most densely populated and yet loneliest cities on Earth – for three years now and still haven’t cracked it. Which makes us miss home all the more.
One of my oldest friends, Simon – my best man with whom I travelled the world in our youth – now lives in Oslo where he is a highfalutin academic. This is inconvenient: I rarely see him. But recently he managed to wangle a two-month posting at Columbia University on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and we struck upon an idea that neither of us felt the need to tell anyone else about. Each Thursday afternoon at 5pm for eight consecutive weeks we would meet at a different location in New York, look around it for an hour or so, then grab a drink nearby. Man Time. And I could still make it home by 7pm to bath the kids.
We took it in turns to choose the meeting point each time – some busy tourist traps; others more obscure. I saw more of New York in those two months than I had in the preceding three years. But way more importantly, I reconnected with my best mate. We snapped right back into the easy familiarity of our old friendship, like a duck to pancake. It was good for the soul.
‘Thursdays at 5’ became a weekly man date I’d like to continue. I have since discovered that my work colleagues assumed I was going for therapy sessions. (Everyone in New York seems to have therapy sessions.) In a way, they were absolutely right.