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The Limits of Friendship (newyorker.com)
122 points by applecore on Oct 7, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 57 comments

Reading the comments, I'd say many members of HN should probably invest more time fostering friendships. Its not that difficult to maintain relationships but it is shockingly easy to let them dissipate.

Every so often I set out to "make the rounds" and see my friends who are spread across the country. I'm a bit of a nomad and yet its often my return that triggers close friends to see each other when they live minutes away. Just pick up the phone and call someone from time to time, let them know you give a shit. It's amazing what a phone call once a month and a visit once a year can do to sustain a meaningful relationship with someone.

People are, on average, terrible at staying in touch with one another. Be the outlier, you'll make the world a better place.

I wish I would have. Sad thing is, the ease of developing new friendships seems to be a function of the number of existing ones. Once you reach zero, like I have, you're pretty much stuck there.

New relationships are a combination of luck and hard work, regardless of your current state. I think having additional friendships just increases the luck side of the equation slightly.

If you want to develop new friendships I'd say find hobbies where you might find interesting people. Some hobbies tend to have more welcoming communities than others, climbing gyms being one of the better environments I've come across for meeting new people.

Totally agree. And some sports are just friendlier than others.

I play badminton, and I've occasionally played ultimate frisbee, and both have a great inclusiveness culture, at least in Colorado, Washington, Texas, and California, the places I've variously played. Much of my current group of friends that I haven't met through geek-oriented meetups I met playing badminton.

I also used to play volleyball, but ... well, too many jerks turned me off. Now I only play with friends at parties.

It's worth emphasizing that making new friends takes time. It was a year before I felt I had good local friends after moving to Colorado, and 2-4 years before I was doing things with them outside of our original meeting group. It probably could be done faster -- I suck at the whole social thing -- but for the poster above who claimed to be stuck at zero: Put in the time, do the work, take a chance by reaching out, and you can build friendships.

ALSO: Watch this TED talk:


They aren't. If you believe that, you're doing something very wrong. Long lasting bonds/relationships/friendships are a lot of work.

New relationships require for you to put yourself in a position where you meet new people. It also requires for you to have opportunities for people to hang out with you.

Stuck's pessimistic, but my experiences lead me to agree. I find it difficult to take the initiative with new people, so many of the people I know I met through a mutual friend.

I don't have a perfect solution, but I've found a few tricks. I've found that clubs and volunteer events tend to be full of friendly people who will introduce themselves. It also helps me socialize with new people when no one else knows each other.

What kind of volunteer events?

I apologize if this is too obvious, but try meetup.com. I met a lot of good friends through it.

Thanks for the suggestion. I've been to a few actually (for bitcoin and spanish practice) and they were a lot of fun, but they never led to any deep friendships like those I used to have. Maybe I'm going to the wrong ones, or alternatively, it's possible I'm just not a very likable person.

But why should I put time into phone calls and the like? Most friends ask me to do things, which waste my time, and they don't do much in return and often won't do useful things when I ask them to.

The optimal number of friends when we were hunter gatherers might have been 150, but the optimal number of friends for a developer who gets asked to do work by a new person every week and contacted by a recruiter twice a day and doesn't have much use for any friends beyond graphics designers is probably much less.

It sounds like are questioning the value of loose work associates, I'm here defending the value of friends. Friends rarely ask me about doing work and I don't qualify my friends by their ability to do "useful" things for me. On the Venn diagram of friends/useful people I'd say there will be a lot of overlap but it most certainly shouldn't be a pre-requisite.

If you don't see any inherent value in having people to talk to, experience things with, and in general unwind with than you are either young and naive or a totally different animal than most of your fellow humans. In the latter case, feel free to disregard my message as it doesn't apply to you but if you are are in the former camp, I'd recommend you think long and hard about how you value people in your life.

I get turned off by social interactions that feel like someone following a rote pattern. When someone isn't a part of my life but "checks in" occasionally it feels more like I'm dealing with a recruiter than a friend.

Maybe if people drift apart it's because they're supposed to?

Why can't we just let things happen naturally? Why does there have to be a formulaic approach to everything? Why do you need to be an outlier? Why can't people just be normal?

Relationships are an investment. It requires some effort but the return on that effort is incredibly high. As I get older I realize how valuable my friendships all are.

I'd argue we're "supposed to" maintain lifelong friendships, as we used to do before we were so geographically mobile. Folks used to grow up and live their entire lives in a small area and know everyone there.

What weight you give this depends on your definition of "supposed to", I suppose; personally, it's been greatly rewarding for me to maintain my friendships, some of which are almost as old as I am.

What I'd love to know is how people carve out time and energy for learning/self-driven education, hobbies and such in addition to friends, particularly if introverted.

My wife seems to be quite good at making friends, because she invests a large % of her time and energy in socializing, and I feel like it is slightly less awkward for a female to invite female coworkers out to do something than it is for male coworkers (feel free to rebut me here). Fortunately, many of her friends have SO's that I've become friendly with, and we have a variety of "couple friends" we do group activities with where she also frequently hangs out with the female half of that equation 1:1.

I on the other hand have multiple hobbies, am working on teaching myself to code, and am constantly teaching myself new things (for example, I was brushing up on multivariable regression analysis at 1am in bed). I barely have time for this as it is without adding socialization to the mix, but I feel like I get more fulfillment out of my current approach. I've certainly learned more as a result.

I'm also an introvert. I can be very social and likable in the moment, but making new friends and the simple act of socializing is draining vs. my other solo activities which replenish my reserves.

Seriously, I'd love to know how people strike that balance and how they make new friends/maintain existing ones without constantly running on empty from the time and energy it takes to do so.

I usually spend time with friends on the weekend, then spend the week doing hobbies and work. Maybe I'll use Snapchat or texting to talk to the odd friend during the week but I mostly stick to myself. Then on weekends it isn't the whole time, maybe I'll spend Friday evening and Saturday morning doing one of my hobbies then meet up in the afternoon and socialise.

At the end of the day I think it's socialising with those close to you, your 15 or so friends when you can and then the extended friends are those that are either spending time with you because their friends of a friend or something along the line, thus your spending time with them as well.

Another interesting point would be spending time with friends doing hobbies, for example I'll plan a hike and go with my friend because we both share that hobby, then on top of that is the option to bring my camera because it's a hobby I enjoy. But for less social hobbies I figure their better to be done during the week or when you don't have any plans for your spare time.

I used to use words like "introvert" and "extrovert" to explain why someone eases into social graces so much better than myself. At some point in my life I realized that socializing, while maybe more intuitive to some, is a _skill_ you get better at with time and energy. Just like any other skill, it's extremely draining and takes a while to reach your goals. You can chock it to being an introvert, or you can invest the time it takes to become skilled at socializing so that discomfort is removed.

I don't believe that introversion is like sedentary lifestyle, which can be cured through exercise. I have taught myself to socialize, and people tell me I am good at it. But it has never stopped being draining. I just do it because I know it helps me socially and professionally. Discomfort hasn't really been a factor since my mid-thirtiesbut it is still as exhausting. Unlike in my teens I get invited to parties, but I still go home early.

Exactly, it's not that there's an initial hump of energy loss that you get over and it gets easier, it's the same even with those you've known a long time. However, I've come to realise I spend a lot of time complaining about social interaction draining me, but almost none allowing myself the time to have social interaction and recover afterward.

There is a common misconception that introversion/extroversion is about having social skills or not. Sure there is likely some correlation, but I would consider myself to have decent social skills, and I'm guessing others would as well.

Introversion to me is more about how I recharge. If I am interacting with someone else, it takes energy to do so. If I was an extrovert, such an experience might replenish my energy. Instead, I recharge by being alone and solo activities.

So when I reference introversion, it was more in regards to how I recharge, not my level of social skills.

> a hundred and fifty, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. (In reality, it’s a range: a hundred at the low end and two hundred for the more social of us.)

And I thought I was doing well with 4 casual friends and one close friend.

I haven't socialized outside of work with someone who I don't work directly with in... decades? (aside from the person I'm married to :) ) I also see lots of other comments in this thread echoing similar sentiment.

I have a feeling we may be in a community that is an outlier to "typical" social behaviors.

I have worked remotely for years. I have no close friends anymore (aside from my wife) and I would not have any casual friends if I didn't go to church every now and then.

But I'm a genuine introvert and don't mind.

I work remotely, recently moved to a new city, don't belong to a church, and have about a dozen causal friends locally (most of them gay men, via a random work-connection of my girlfriend's and the fact that the gay community is ridiculously welcoming and outgoing.)

I'd say "Introverts of the world, unite!" but that would kind of defeat the purpose.

I've speculated that the 150-person limit on pre-political human group sizes is due to the limits on our attention: http://www.tjradcliffe.com/?p=1203

That speculation was based on the idea that men form groups to support each other in mate competition, but it could well also be a primary phenomenon, with 12 or 13 being the absolute upper limit of our attentional resources. That would give 150 people as the typical group size. Either way, it would be very interesting if we could tie those two magic numbers--7 and 150--together somehow.

No kidding, with all the jokes about the extroverted $scientist being the one looking at your shoes during a conversation. Then again, one can simply be friendly to everyone, without becoming close friends or assuming any liabilities. Friendship is a rather abstract, not to say imprecise, word.

> And I thought I was doing well with 4 casual friends and one close friend.

On the contrary, I have many casual friends but 0 close friends. I'd say I'm pretty extroverted and like having a wide social circle but the lack of close friends does bother me sometimes.

  Unlike other touch receptors, which operate on a loop—you touch a hot stove, 
  the nerves fire a signal to the brain, the brain registers pain and fires a signal 
  back for you to withdraw your hand—these receptors are one-way. They talk to 
  the brain, but the brain doesn’t communicate back. “We think that’s what they 
  exist for, to trigger endorphin responses as a consequence of grooming,” 
  Dunbar said. Until social media can replicate that touch, it can’t fully replicate 
  social bonding.
Crazy thought: Could the haptic-messaging features of the Apple Watch make it the first mainstream product to tap into this principle?

Have you ever lived somewhere, perhaps a city, where all your close friends change every few years because everyone keeps moving? That was my case living in Vancouver. I have since moved and have had to start over myself. I find that it takes a while to build close friends especially once you are in the job market and everyone has families. It also takes a lot of effort to keep close friends because i'm so busy with non-social things and sporting activities that I'm rarely free just to hang as I did in University. This is doubly true for those in relationships as we also have to spend time with our partners friends and families too.

Not complaining, but it's difficult to adjust to compared to grad school.

I'm glad that this article points out that the Dunbar number is a RANGE. (That's what you should expect about most numerical statements about typical human beings. The number you hear in a news story is just the central tendency of a number that varies among different individuals.)

The article reports, "On the flipside, groups can extend to five hundred, the acquaintance level," and that would suggest that my group of Facebook friends (a bit more than 700, the great majority of whom I have actually, factually met in person) is a group of acquaintances. And I'm okay with that, as they are FRIENDLY acquaintances, and they interact with one another (in many combinations of individuals who have never face-met even once) in delightful and thought-provoking ways.

I feel a lot of empathy for the younger people commenting in this thread that they feel they have few friends and few channels for meeting any new friends. That may change over time. There have been times in my life when I was much more isolated than I am now, when it would have been unbelievable that I would ever have an online network of 700-some "friends." Of course like a lot of married men, I've invested most in my relationship with my wife, and she is by far my best friend, and also a connection to other friends. I do think the article makes a good point that it's wise for each of us to enjoy some of the in-person aspects of friendship (hearing someone's voice, maybe tapping someone on the shoulder or hugging or whatever as is appropriate for the friendship) to build a connection with people that just can't be built by keystrokes sent over the Internet.

In high school I had 30 casual friends and 15 close friends, at University I had 20 casual friends and 10 close friends, now I have 10 casual friends and 5 close friends, I predict them to reduce to zero when I get married. :(

Married for 6 years. Can confirm. I have 1 close friend now (my spouse), and the rest of my friendships are casual.

Well, interestingly enough, it seems like you lose 2 close friends for every new romantic relationship:


Five years ago I had 20 casual friends and 2 close friends and then I met my wife. Now I have 60 casual friends and 3 close friends - including her. Getting married has been nothing but good for my social life.

It's unfortunate you don't consider your spouse a close friend.

I hope my girlfriend doesn't read this.

I hope your wife doesn't read about your girlfriend.

In high school I had four casual friends, in college I had one, five years after college I have zero. Poor you.

I was at a huge high school, there were 55 alumnus per classroom, and 15 classrooms per generation, my friends at the University were a subset of the ones at high school.

Path was basically founded on the idea of Dunbar's number and that didn't work out so well. I think they assumed people wanted deeper connections with their friends online than folks really did. This article backs that up pretty well.

It is interesting the conclusion about the thinning of relationships and what the impacts of that are. I agree that you can likely form very strong bonds over the web but I don't think at this point they can replace actual physical interaction for the majority of people.

The article says, "Thus, from the size of an animal’s neocortex, the frontal lobe in particular, you could theoretically predict the group size for that animal". So I did a bit googling and found another article, here


This one has another interesting point: "These analyses show that while relative neocortex size is positively correlated with female group size, it is negatively, or not at all correlated with male group size. This indicates that the social intelligence hypothesis only applies to female sociality."

Perhaps after a man gets married with a woman, he could shift much of his social function of the neocrotex to his female partener, and free up that part of the brain for some other interesting stuff...

Assuming in a typical courting relationship network, a female is being courted by 8 males at the same time, and assuming all those men would devote much of their resources to their courtship and hence would have few resources to spare for other inter-personal relationships, it looks like the neocrotex of the female would need to take on more burden (e.g. more developed) as to take care of those 8 links, than the neocrotex of each man needs to maintain a single link.

This may explain why most of the time woman is more adept at dealing with those sociality issues.

                         male_7    o
                             o     |     o male_1
                              \    |    /
                               \   |   /
                                \  |  /
                                 \ | /
                      male_6      \|/ female
                         o---------o---------o male_2
                                 / | \
                                /  |  \
                        male_5 /   |   \
                              o    |    o male_3
                                   o male_4

The article makes sense to me, but one point I'd make is that we didn't start becoming more socially distant from each other in the Internet age, from what I see it's an extension of what we experienced in the TV age... Yes, you might be in the same room as other people watching the same TV show, but the level of interaction is minimal, and the content you get from TV is often far removed from your reality so it doesn't really offer much in the way of insight in navigating your current world.

I'll put it like this... I watched a lot of TV growing up, and it has clearly shaped my imagination. If we ever had some catastrophic event after which civilised society broke down, I would have a better idea of how to navigate that world than the one we have now, which I find it easy to be disconnected from. Of course I don't want to live in a dystopia, but it's a reflection on how we connect to what we consume.

"On the flipside, groups can extend to five hundred, the acquaintance level, and to fifteen hundred, the absolute limit—the people for whom you can put a name to a face."

This is spot on. I was able to reliably recall passengers I'd had driving for lyft up to about 1000 rides, which is 1500 minus the "number of facebook friends I have".

There are also many positive ways to manage an extended network of friends - ie. the people you don't see on a day-to-day basis.

For example, I definitely don't abuse my social network and groom it on a regular basis, both public and private feeds and profiles. My LinkedIn account has "only" 83 connections and my Facebook has 143. Yes, I know every single one of them. Facebook in particular has allowed me to connect with my extended family overseas so I put a lot of value into each of my posts on there, even if others choose not to. Sometimes I even translate my own posts for the sake of my non-English speaking family so as to guarantee the furthest reach of my social broadcasts.

Everyone is always happy when I reach out to them, even if it's only once a year on Facebook. I also try not to do it on the day of their birthday, on holidays, or on any special day per say as it amplifies the gesture.

I read a more basic article on this a while back on Cracked[0], that you might find interesting if you liked this.

I find there to be a lot of truth to the basic idea of this. But I think there is also a lot of individual variation. As I have gotten older and developed better social skills, I recognize that I am an Introvert at my core, and only care to maintain a small number of close relationships. Despite this, I am capable of being social, chatty, and sometimes even charming during social events, when I'm at my best, but I usually have no desire to maintain most of those relationships.

At the core, you have to figure out what is right for you, not what other people or society think you should want, and work towards maintaining that.

[0] http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html

Anecdotal evidence as part of a Burner-esque 'tribe' of party people: 120-150 is about right.

Same holds true for client relationships in IT.

After that they are just faces in the crowd, not people.

So we know that Dunbar's number is really, REALLY important when it comes to human interaction.

But nearly everything in the near past has to do with flouting it, creating huge institutions which absolutely, positively make Dunbar's number look like a joke.

Perhaps that is why there's a lot of trust eroding in the big institutions. When size >> Dunbar's number people have the anonymity they need to start doing less great things and get away with it.

> One concern, though, is that some social skills may not develop as effectively when so many interactions exist online.

Maybe we're just adapting ourselves to the new social environment. We forget what we don't need to survive, and we learn skills in a different form from what is considered as a "normal" in this present time.

Many of us complain about not keeping in contact with your friends regularly.

What would you think about an application that notifies us to communicate with friends frequently?

I would dismiss any and all notifications with a curt 'oh piss off!' unless they were impeccably timed and had something sentimental like a large photo of me with that friend.

Seems like either Dunbar's number is from some alternate reality or many of the commenters (including myself) are the alternate reality...

I think it's an average over a large number of people. Online communities, like HN, tend to fill with Introverts, which I think are on the lower side. There are also lots of extroverts out there who genuinely enjoy maintaining huge numbers of friendships, but I don't think they spend much time posting on message boards. Especially ones that tend to be a bit on the pedantic and humorless side, like HN.

Don't get me wrong, HN, I love you the way that you are, even if every now and then I think you could stand to lighten up a bit. But I will confess to a need to visit Reddit for some jokes and pun chains sometimes.

I assume that the numbers quoted are more about the brains capacity at each level of engagement.

I assume it would adjust for introvert/ extrovert. Like others here I would find maintaining the number of relationships at those number very tiring.

I'm doubtful about both the data and the results of this article.

interesting point about touch (light stroke) at the end, which online can't replicate, and the apple watch idea of communicating your heartbeat

That was a well written article up until the links to sites behind Harvard University's paywall accessing service.

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