Daisy Alioto’s pandemic experience has been a master class in self-optimization. Never mind that she was laid off in the early stages of lockdown. She found a fun-sounding new job, got married (via Zoom, on her couch), and signed with a literary agent. Most remarkably, she tells me, “I didn’t fuck up any of my friendships.” Not a single casualty, unless you count somebody named Caroline, who has an Android phone that can’t participate in group texts.
Alioto is all set for the “Roaring Twenties” we’ve all been promised, eager to trade in shivery park meetups for the sweaty, crowded parties she will roll up to with her pack of friends. “It will be so invigorating with other people to bump into and other people to talk about,” the 30-year-old said. More nobly, she plans to go on a “national tour of friendships,” a cross-country trip where she will visit the people she’s been unable to invite to come crouch on her picnic blanket. “We’ve got to get some of that time back,” said Alioto. “Because I did not want my world to narrow so much.”
Alioto’s tale is inspirational. It also shames me to my core. What I would give to have such a clear-cut social-reopening plan. My life is strewn with carcasses of friendships I held sacred but that seem to have withered in the glare of Zoom and the absence of gossip. Other relationships have come up from behind and flourished to a degree I never fathomed possible. It’s weird, almost scary. Even my best and most stable friendship, with a woman who lives across the country, has taken a wonky turn. We now speak for long stretches on the phone every day, and recently had a conversation in which we acknowledged the inevitable drop in communication once the pandemic is over, sounding like two teary parents sending their firstborn off to college.
Two years ago I wrote an op-ed in which I made the case for ending friendships. It had seemed a radical thing to say, that a person should feel free to walk away rather than wait for a bond to fade out on its own time. But that thinking rested on the assumption that there was a predictable rise and fall of a friendship, and we didn’t have the time or heart to wait out a yearslong degradation. This past year, just as we’ve seen our social muscles atrophy, many of us have witnessed our social networks warp into unrecognizable configurations. Thanks to the flattening effect of social media, casual acquaintances were upgraded to close confidants. Meanwhile, some of our tightest bonds came undone, submerged in a bath of equal parts boredom, anxiety, and sparkless group texts. What happens once we crawl out of our hidey holes?
“There is no reason to expect the world to be the same afterwards,” said Robin Dunbar, the British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist known for “Dunbar’s number,” a quantifiable limit to the number of close relationships the average human can handle. He argued that the changes that set in over the past year might not have been completely random. “It might have been an exacerbation of the natural order of things and speeded things up a bit,” he told me over Zoom, looking every bit the Oxford don with his thatch of white hair and afternoon mug of tea. “The movements wouldn’t have happened so soon but for the fact that you had this kind of interjection.” In other words, the pandemic acted like something of a platonic truth serum.
Dunbar’s number is actually a few numbers, figures that stack Russian-doll-like and express the capacity of our complex yet scientifically predictable social networks. The average human being, per Dunbar’s research, has the ability to maintain five super-close confidants. These five friends sit within a group of 15, the people close enough to regularly see at dinner parties. The next stratum includes 50 friends, those who might come to a barbecue or a birthday party. The final layer, of 150, is made up of those who can be counted on to show up for a bar mitzvah—“or a funeral,” Dunbar added with a mordant chuckle.
What typically happens, with particular alacrity in early adulthood, is our circumstances change and our friends move up and down the layers. When we move to a new city or switch jobs, the dear friend we used to see a few times a month can drift into the category of vague—but valued—acquaintance. Strangely enough, a year of absolute entropy has turned out to be the ultimate catalyst for our friendships. Just as many of us have aged beyond physical recognition, many of our primary relationships will emerge on the other side of this time warp as something altogether unrecognizable.
“Living in a bleak time requires a different tool kit,” said Sarah O’Dell, a 44-year-old content manager and mother of two who lives in Redding, Connecticut. The trauma of this past year, which included her husband having a stroke (he’s doing well) and her seeing certain associates exhibit less-than-prudent behavior when it came to masking, pushed her to “get real” and KonMari her friend list. “There used to be many people I would have put on pants for—not yoga pants, but the ones with buttons,” she said. “That number has definitely plummeted.”