It’s Never Been Easier to Be an Amazing Friend

We’re all participating in a giant friendship experiment

Illustration: Jay Wright

OnOn the how-bad-does-it-hurt scale of abominations this pandemic has wrought, a canceled wedding is not even a 3 out of 10. But it was, nonetheless, the particular sadness I experienced in mid-March: My fiancé and I called our parents and our wedding party and told the guests that our April 18 wedding would be postponed by at least six months, maybe a year. I hit send on the email, and then I went to a beach and cried. Alone.

Can I tell you a beach is a garbage place for crying? You think about how, say, your dad lives in Florida, where the outbreak is currently surging, and how he has diabetes, and how he bought this adorable shirt with little surfboards on it for the rehearsal dinner, but then you’re like, Is that seagull honestly trying to eat a Coke can? You can’t get worked up enough to really get it going. It just goes in and out like that, like waves.

The beach is not your friend.

The friend that I needed right then came through a week later, on the night that would have been my bachelorette party. She arranged for me and four other friends to meet up over Zoom and drink wine and talk.

We stayed on through three 40-minute Zoom cutoffs. It was the first time I’d been able to breathe normally in days. My fiancé and I had only been able to afford four official bridal party members apiece, and this friend hadn’t… I guess you’d say “made it” into the bridesmaids. Older friends were ahead of her in the queue. (The worst thing about weddings is how they require you to rank the people you love.)

This woman was not my “best friend,” or my oldest friend, but she did one of the best things a friend has ever done for me.

SSocial connection sustains humans as much as food or water does. In paper after paper, scientists have shown friendship blunting the effects of negative experiences, lowering blood pressure and inflammation markers, reducing the risk of dementia, and increasing lifespan. We desperately need it.

But until social distancing removed the ability to physically interact with others, we were not always good at pursuing it. There was always work, or TV, or a brutal commute that took precedence over calling a friend. On average, we spend just 41 minutes a day socializing. Or at least we used to. “Later,” we would say. “We’ll talk later.”

But we have the time now. And we have the technology to take advantage of it. Use of videochat services is up. Calling is back. People are connecting more intimately over Facebook and Instagram. Many of us are suddenly actively maintaining friendships we ordinarily let maintain themselves. Amid a double epidemic — the obvious one and also loneliness — a few key barriers to close friendship have actually lowered. At least temporarily.

What an opportunity. We’re all participating in a global friendship experiment. We’re finding out who our “real” friends are because we are having to choose how we maintain our connections and which connections we maintain. Friendship is an internal state made public by action, and now is the perfect time to play around with which actions we use.

“T“There is a huge potential here,” says Shasta Nelson, author of Friendships Don’t Just Happen. “When we have limitations placed on us, we are more open to practicing new ways of being together.”

I found Nelson when I started researching how peculiar all our behavior was becoming in the first weeks of the pandemic, when normalcy evaporated almost instantly. It reminded me of the grief-stricken weeks after my best friend drowned back in 2012: It was like the membrane separating us into individual units had become more permeable. People who would normally observe each other passively on Instagram were sending direct messages. Friends from outer rings of social circles moved toward the center. Questions became more intimate. “How are you doing?” everyone kept asking, only now they actually meant it.

In a Ted Talk, Nelson talked about categorizing the social science research on friendship into three categories. Together, she argues, those categories form the arms of a triangle that supports healthy relationships. First is the base of the triangle — having positive feelings for someone. This is thinking someone is great or liking their vibe.

But it’s not enough to think it. You also have to communicate it, and our bizarre circumstances might be making that easier. “This might open us up a lot more to express our love to each other and to realize what really matters,” Nelson says. When people feel like they’re facing mortality or loss or pain, they naturally realign their priorities to focus more on relationships. They’re more open to telling someone they matter.

Nelson’s second pillar of friendship is consistency. This is proximity, frequency, and regularity of interaction — which, for most people, has been disrupted entirely.

Physical location is a huge driver of consistency, but in isolation, it’s no longer relevant. The privilege of proximity extends to anyone you encounter, whether it’s an online choice or an offline accident. And with a reduced pool of people to provide social interaction, it may be easier than ever to accumulate shared time.

The third arm is sharing vulnerabilities. I’m personally awful at this one, preferring to crawl under a couch to die like a cat (*cough* or cry alone on a beach) before admitting I’m having any kind of trouble. I once went to a dinner where we were supposed to ask each other a selection of the 36 questions that can make you fall in love with anyone, from this NYTimes Modern Love column, and wanted to chew my own leg off to escape.

But now is a special time for vulnerability as well. There’s plenty of research showing that shared pain increases bonding. It feels less awkward to admit you need support when everyone else is in the same position. Now that we all know why we’re home and lonely (we’re not allowed to go anywhere), there’s less stigma associated with reaching out or being honest about our specific fears, joys, or sorrows.

OOkay, great. But what do I do to make sure I take advantage of this time? For a more scientific perspective, I called Jeffrey Hall, a researcher at the University of Kansas, whose Relationships and Technology Lab studies how technology affects social connection and how expectations affect friendship. Hall explained an idea that is as smack-yourself-in-the-forehead obvious as it is difficult to put into practice: Friendships, like everything else in life, are built and maintained through action. And action requires energy.

Even Hall, who considers himself an extrovert, has to make an effort to take concrete actions toward maintaining friendships. He puts them on his list of things to do: Call this friend, email that one. Set up a coffee meeting, a lunch.

My friend who set up the Zoom bachelorette call is naturally very good at this. I’ve noticed it before. And then I noticed something else: All my friends who were taking the initiative to set up calls and e-workouts and Zoom happy hours were the ones I’d considered naturally gregarious. The ones I’d envied. Maybe they aren’t genetically charismatic: Maybe they just work at it.

Not that “put a little elbow grease into it” is advice that will work for everyone. Hall warns that our current situation is one in which the socially rich get richer and the socially poor get poorer. The truly lonely — those without any support network, who have now also lost those fleeting connections made in shops, restaurants, and on public transportation — are in a tough place right now. Domestic violence has skyrocketed. Those who are able to smile and say hello to a neighbor or stranger from six feet away are performing a public service by doing it.

So if a Zoom call doesn’t end up feeling seamless or if a person didn’t put in the effort to call you on your birthday? It’s worth reaching out anyway. No one is their best self under massive stress and uncertainty. At worst, you’ll discover a friendship isn’t quite as strong as you thought it was. At best, you may gain a new bridesmaid.

Jacqui is the former articles editor at Popular Mechanics. Her work has appeared in Wired, Esquire, Men’s Health, and Best American Science and Nature Writing.

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