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No One Needs 64 Friends

Updated at the Bottom

If you’re in your late twenties, not only are your more-nubile-than-mine ovaries churning out follicles each month (unless you have POF), but you also probably have more friends than the average grade schooler.  A somewhat unscientific-sounding study conducted in England found that people have the largest concentration of friends in their late twenties.  The reason given is that people still haven’t drifted away from college friends (or school friends), and they’ve added work friends.

The article states: “A survey of 1,505 Britons found that the average person has 64 friends.”

Whoa.

Wait.

I’m going to call bullshit on this.  64 friends?  64 people you keep in touch with on a regular basis?  In addition to family members?  64 people you would call if you had a miscarriage, or to hold your hair back when you vomit, or invite to your 30th birthday party.  Your milestone 30th birthday — you’re inviting 64 people AND their significant others?  You’re inviting 128 friends to your party?  That doesn’t sound quite right.

In your late twenties, you may have 64 close acquaintances or former friends, but if you are working, and especially if you are additionally married or parenting, you are not socializing with 64 people.  You aren’t even remotely socializing on a regular basis with 64 people.  Remotely, as in, keeping in touch over email or the phone.  At least, not in any deep way.

We need to move away from counting every relationship we have as a friendship.  They’re not all friendships, and THAT’S OKAY.  Due to Facebook, we call everyone our friend.  But here’s the thing, not everyone is an actual friend.  Most people are an acquaintance.  They may be an acquaintance you’re fond of, or an acquaintance you wish you had more time to turn into a friend, but acquaintances aren’t friends.  They are not dependable as friends.  They are not as intimate as friends.

And, again, that’s okay.  Not everyone has to be a friend.  You can hang out with a person and enjoy their company without elevating them to the special status of friendship.

friend

Here’s a good list of questions to ask yourself when determining whether they are a friend or acquaintance:

  1. Would they be invited to your small, limited-space wedding?  That would make them a friend. (Unless you’re only inviting them because your mother told you to invite them.)
  2. Would they be invited to your trunk sale?  That would make them an acquaintance.
  3. Would they find out about your death via a phone call?  Friend.
  4. Would they find out about your death via Facebook?  Acquaintance.
  5. Would you go on vacation with them?  Friend.
  6. Would you look at their vacation photos on Instagram?  Acquaintance.

I’m being facetious, and perhaps it is because I am old and crotchety and apparently past my friend prime.  But I think — on the whole — we need to stop focusing on quantity and start looking at quality.  I’ve seen numerous studies and books counting up friends.  But who is measuring the strength of the friendship?

Who cares if you have 64 friends if none will be there for you when you need them, and none let you be there for them when they’re celebrating or mourning?

A girl needs a handful of friends; people close by and people who live far away (so they don’t know the people you want to gossip about), people who have known you a long time and people who just met you, people that are good for fun activities and others that are good to be around when you need a cry.  10 is a decent number.  3 is fine too.  1 can do in a pinch.  But 64 is overkill.  No one needs 64 friends.

A friend (yes, she is a friend!) commented as we drove over windy roads this past weekend, that items are no longer made with good materials.  That we’re trading quality for faster, cheaper ways of making things, and by default, our tangible items — our phones and appliances and even houses — tend to breakdown faster and need replacing sooner.

And I think we’re heading in the same direction with friendships.  When we water them down, calling every relationship a friend, we cheapen the institution of friendship.  We make friends expendable.  We don’t think about building stronger friendships because we can always replace those people with a new friend, like Verizon’s New-Every-Two plan.

I have 64 people I can state one or two facts about.  But I only have 14 people who are contacts in my phone, and a handful of additional people that I converse with daily or semi-daily via email.  Think I’m doing okay for 40.

Updated:

Pulling this thought from the comment section because I don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle.

I like the idea of creating a new lexicon that describes the various levels of friendship.  But I think we need to stop lumping acquaintances into the concept of friendship.  We have this delineation already in the definition of both words, and yet we’ve started calling (and thinking of) our acquaintances as friends.

I think the danger in these studies (and the reporting on them) is that people become self-conscious of their relationships.  They think, “I don’t have 64 friends, so what am I doing wrong?  What is wrong with me?”  They look at the people they call friends and wonder how others ended up with so many while they have so few.  And then they attempt to fix themselves, or consider “fixing” themselves or their situation.

And so these studies are the emotional/social equivalent to the media airbrushing models and selling us on a false concept of beauty.  Yes, an airbrushed model is a real person, but she’s not a “real” person.  She’s a trumped up, changed version of a person.  And calling 64 people that you used to know and don’t know well now or were acquaintances all along “friends” is similar — the creator of these studies are airbrushing friendships.  They’re airbrushing relationships.

Merriam-Webster defines friendship as a person with whom you are attached to by affection or esteem.  It’s a favoured companion.  And many thinkers from Maya Angelou to nameless individuals have worked to draw boundaries around the words.  The common denominator is that friendships contain depth.  It’s not the amount of time spent together, but how deep the relationship goes.  I have a lot of acquaintances, and some are serious and constant acquaintances, according to Angelou, and I think my kids have 64 playmates, which is very different from having 64 friends.

But I only have 14 people I can call a friend, not counting my siblings and Josh who are my best friends.  And I don’t believe you can have true depth with 64 people on an on-going basis.  You can have connection with more than 64 people, but if you are truly going deep, and leaving time for your marriage, children, and career, I’m not sure how you can be there, in-depth, for 64 people.  Or how they can be there for you.

16 comments

1 nicoleandmaggie { 08.05.14 at 8:02 am }

*shrug* I always think arguments over definitions like this are kind of silly. So the study has a different definition of “friend” than you do… that doesn’t mean you’re right and they’re wrong or you’re wrong and they’re right. I’m sure the original study starts with their definition and explains why they’re using it. And it’s silly to say we’re watering down the word friend by not keeping it to “close friend”. Friend is all-purpose and generic. It’s inclusive. It includes every kid in preschool. “Close friend” isn’t.

2 Serenity { 08.05.14 at 8:21 am }

I do think it depends on your definition of friend.

Right out of college, I know I had a massive group of friends from being in the marching band, which I tried very hard to keep in touch with. There was easily 60 of us, and all of them I would have counted as close friends. I didn’t share every part of myself with everyone, but I was freer than most with my heart and felt a connection with all of them, on some level. Proximity does that, as does being young and stupid and believing that you’ll all be friends forever. I wish I could have held on to that feeling of connection with so many of my friends; it’s part of why I hate Facebook – the reminders that people who used to be an integral part of my life are now just acquaintances. It makes me sad and regretful, even though I know that friendship isn’t always forever.

As I’ve gotten older, I definitely find that my definition of friend dovetails closer to your definition. I have a handful of people that I share myself with, and only a few that I really trust enough where I can show my whole self.

But I will say, I agree that there has been a change in the definition of friend with the advent of social media. Virtual friendships via FB is different than the friendships I had in college, being a part of the marching band. Maybe it makes me sound old or bitter about social media in a way, but virtual connection is not a substitute for real, honest, personal connection.

3 Jen { 08.05.14 at 9:27 am }

This is why I ditched Facebook.

When my count went over 50 ‘friends’ I realised I was losing the people who I actually cherished in the false assurance that everyone on fb knew what they needed to. So true interactions got choked off and real friendships withered and in some cases were lost.

Instead of fb I now email those (far far fewer than 50) people who matter most. It saddens me that I sometimes miss news from true friends because they’re only sharing on fb but I wouldn’t go back!

4 a { 08.05.14 at 10:04 am }

I spend a lot of time trying to convey what friendship is and isn’t to my daughter. I want her to get the idea that you can have different kinds of friends. I want her to know that friendships will change over her life. I want her to know that someone who doesn’t care when they hurt her feelings isn’t really a friend, but that friends can do things that hurt her feelings that aren’t meant to be hurtful. I want her to know that it’s not always possible and not really necessary to find your BFF in kindergarten. Or that you may have found him/her but you don’t know it yet. I want her to have 64 friends now (which she probably does), and to know that she will narrow it down as time goes by. Or expand it, if that’s how it works out. Regardless, I want her to have a good working definition of friendship and as many people who qualify under that definition as she wants and needs in her life.

5 fifi { 08.05.14 at 10:54 am }

We need a new word to describe the type of friend who would visit you in hospital or jail. There’s “BFF”, but I dislike the way it sounds and it implies exclusivity (you can only have one “BFF”).

6 Katie { 08.05.14 at 11:44 am }

I have two circles of friends. My first circle is my “in real life” friends — those individuals whom I know from outside of my experiences with infertility and/or adoption. Then, I have my ALI friends — people who I have grown close and connected with through our journeys to build a family. I keep in touch with both groups in different ways. The circles overlap with a couple of people, there are a few out of each circle whom I consider “close friends,” and there is only one woman in the world who I call my best friend. But there is no way, even with both circles, that I have 64 friends.
In my opinion, social media has created confusion as to who is a friend and who is an acquaintance, and your list of questions is a good example for distinguishing the two. Thinking back to when I discovered we were matched and we were going to have a daughter, I consider the people I called or texted with the news friends (or family)… whereas the people who found out via Facebook or social media I would consider acquaintances.

7 Tracie { 08.05.14 at 4:01 pm }

I know I couldn’t go in depth with 64 people. I wouldn’t really even want to try. Besides my husband and daughter, I have that kind of relationship with about ten people. That is okay with me. I have lots of acquaintances, but those ten people hold pieces of my heart, and that ins’t something I’m going to give away to just anyone I meet.

8 Esperanza { 08.05.14 at 5:28 pm }

It’s funny, because hearing that people claim to have 64 friends in that article doesn’t make me feel self conscious or like there is something wrong with me, because the combination of that number and that word gives me an idea of what iteration of the word “friends” they are using. And I bet I have about 64 of those kinds of friends. They are my friends from high school, and my friends from college, and my friends from my past life that I did share a huge piece of myself with once, but that I don’t see or talk to as much anymore. And, if I were going to have a wedding, I would feel like I should invite all of them, because they were all really important to me once, and still are in their own ways. (This is one of the reasons we didn’t have a celebration for our family affair wedding, because the invite list got too long really fast.) So yes, I would call them friends and not acquaintances. But when I read your definition of friend, that is when I feel self-conscious, and wonder if something is wrong with me, because I only have one friend like the kind you are describing. I used to have more, but now they fall more readily into that category of friends that the article is describing. We were close once, but not so much anymore. And I don’t feel like I can call them and really share myself with them anymore. But when we get together, we are definitely not what I would consider acquaintances. And yet we are no longer close in the way you describe (I would not have answered yes to those questions you listed above that help determine who is a friend.) So reading that you have 14 people that you feel you can really call “friend,” (in the way you believe the word should be used) actually makes me feel a lot more self-conscious than the article’s “64 friends,” because I know I only have one, and I bet I’m not as close to her as you are to your closest friends. That makes me wonder if something is wrong with me, or if it’s something I need to fix (of course I already have been feeling that way, as is clear by the last five or six posts on my blog).

I guess my point is just that maybe some people define friend more loosely because they don’t have any of the kinds of friends that you consider true friends (or they have very few). I generally put the modifier “close” in front of friends like that. I think that does enough to explain the difference between the ones that are currently in my life and the ones that have drifted away. Maybe we need other words for the different places people fall on the continuum between acquaintances and best friends, because people drop the modifiers to save space and time and then everyone just becomes “a friend.”

I still don’t know if I believe that using the word friend too liberally cheapens it in some way. I’ll have to think about that some more…

9 deathstar { 08.05.14 at 5:42 pm }

I may say this is my friend, “Sally”, but know full well that they are not my friend. A friend to me is someone I will call if I am seriously in trouble and need help. Or need someone to confess something to, or expose my true feelings. They will show up for me when I need them. I want to tell them the good news first or second or third. I will carve out time for them and be inconvenienced by them if need be. I will get on a plane for them. Who would get on a plane for 64 people?!!!

10 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.05.14 at 8:52 pm }

Don’t forget Twibbon rights as a valid measure.

11 Tara K { 08.05.14 at 9:18 pm }

When I heard the concept of “refrigerator rights” several years back, it really struck a chord. I think you’re sounding the same notes!

Basically, the small, circle of people who “share a level of connection and intimacy” that they feel free to help themselves without explicit permission to a snack/see you in your bathrobe, etc….

I think there is a point about needing to have regular in-person interactions outside of family, but deeper than we can sustain long distance, too.

http://www.amazon.com/Refrigerator-Rights-Connections-Restoring-Relationships/dp/039952830X

Thanks for the post!

12 Justine { 08.05.14 at 9:25 pm }

I’ve never had many friends, and I’m pretty happy that way. 14 sounds about right. It might even be more like 10. But I do think that even those friends fall into two categories, and some people probably wouldn’t count one of the categories as friends because they’d tell me I can’t be friends with people I’ve never spent all that much time with in person, even if those are people I trust with some of my most intimate secrets. That same group of people would probably not find out about my death via phone call, because other people might not know to call them (unless one of them finds out, and then all of them would call each other). I also have a few “friends in training,” who fall somewhere in the middle … and some who were high school and college friends that I no longer consider “friends” in the way you describe (though I’d want them at my wedding, sadly, they’d find out about my death online).

There’s another interesting parallel problem that comes with this massive “friending”: fear of hurting people’s feelings by not being everyone’s friend. I think it’s OK for my son to have a few friends, and not really call other people his friends, but when time comes for birthday parties, and everyone else invites everyone, but he only wants to invite a few “friends” to celebrate with him, he’s the odd man out. It’s an awkward place to be. At what point do we encourage children to transition away from the “everyone is my friend” approach to the “hold your friends close” approach to relationship-building?

13 Queenie { 08.05.14 at 10:51 pm }

I agree that there is a qualitative difference between a friend and an acquaintance, and I do think things like this study make people feel inadequate. Because I definitely have 64 acquaintances, but only a handful of friends.

14 Mali { 08.06.14 at 1:55 am }

Interesting post and discussion. I have a rather more open definition of friendship. (And I am older and more curmudgeonly than you!)

If I care about someone and they care about me, if I value having them in my life, if they bring me happiness, if I want to spend time with, then I will call them friends. I would hug them if I met them tomorrow. (And believe me, NZers don’t tend to hug!) These people are much more than simple acquaintances. They don’t know the intimate details of my life. (Given recent health issues, I’m sure even my best friends wish they didn’t know the intimate details of my life!) But they are an important part of my life, and I like to know they’re in it in some way.

Yes, I have close friends (not even 14) who would fit your definition of friends. I call them close friends, as definition. But they are not my only friends. And I feel it demeans our relationships to define the others as only acquaintances. An acquaintance to me has no depth. So I find myself in the unusual position of disagreeing with Maya Anjelou. But I am actually very comfortable doing that on this topic!

15 Amel { 08.06.14 at 9:23 am }

Hmmmmm…I have set up different groups in my FB in terms of these “friends” to make it easier for me to browse through each of the groups and it makes it easier for me to share some things (wall posts/photos) with only certain groups of people.

For example: blogger friends, ALI friends, close friends, university friends, High School friends, Junior High School friends, Elementary School friends, family, coworkers, etc.

So I also have a rather loose definition of friendship. Come to think of it, though, I think it’s probably because Indonesians rarely use the term acquaintance when they speak. Instead, people use the word “friend” and then the other person would usually ask, “Where do you know him/her from? School? Work?” in order to figure out what kind of “friend” he/she is.

Many of my ex schoolmates have hundreds of “friends” in FB and to me, it’s just a number. It’s only Facebook after all and I know many of them are ex schoolmates as well (when I was at school, each classroom could consist of 30-42 children and each year they changed classrooms, so imagine the amount of children who crossed paths along the years). It’s very normal for Indonesians to have big weddings as well as funerals. It’s the custom there.

I don’t know how the younger generation feels like, though. Do they feel like it’s an achievement/something important to have a large number of friends showing in their FB account?

16 Battynurse { 08.17.14 at 2:14 pm }

So true. I’ve struggled with this. Assuming all my “friends” were in fact friends and then feeling hurt and let down when I was left standing on my own with no friends in site when there was a crisis.

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