In a little park in south London, two friends and I are taking it in turns to wee in a ditch. "It’s fine!" the first shouts over as she clambers through the overgrowth. "I think I got stung, maybe," she continues, more quietly, "but it’s okay!" Our other friend goes. "Lovely!" she concludes. And then I bounce back, relieved, and open another beer.
We rely on friendships for many things: happiness, confirmation that we have value, validation (or the opposite) of our views, health and wellbeing. There has been no period in human history where this has not been the case.
"Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness," Virginia Woolf wrote in an essay published in 1925 in The Common Reader. "To share is our duty; to go down boldly and bring to light those hidden thoughts which are the most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it."
In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, we take a piss in a bush near a park for our friends. So we can see them. So we can hear them.
Friendship has been through a plethora of trends since the beginning of lockdown: the Houseparty phase (an indubitable nightmare), the era of the Zoom pub quiz and, more recently, the rise of the WhatsApp voice note essay. But as the novelties wear off one by one, month by month, a more permanent effect could be taking a toll on our friendships.
Friendships decay when you don't see people, and they decay quite fast.
Professor Robin Dunbar
According to Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, each of our friendships has a so-called 'decay rate' – and right now it’s the highest it’s ever been.
"Friendships decay when you don’t see people, and they decay quite fast," Professor Dunbar explains. Dunbar’s prior research on friendships made global headlines in 2014 when he calculated that our capacity for friendship is limited to a specific number: just 150 people. "Our social world is still very, very small," he explains. "Even within that your total time investment is devoted to just 15 people – 10% of your already very small social network.
"But you really do depend on them. And your wellbeing, happiness, your physical and mental health, even your risk of dying is all affected by the number of close friends that you have. And therein lies the dilemma of lockdown," he adds.
Right now we are severing those links – albeit for necessary reasons like staying at home, social distancing and saving the NHS – and the decay rate of our friendships is increasing as a result. That’s because friendships depend on constant investment of time, Dunbar says. If they aren’t afforded that, they will "inexorably decay until that friend becomes an acquaintance".
Friendship decay is hardly unusual; people roll in and out of our lives continuously and cyclically. We seek out friends who feel comforting at different times in our lives, sometimes to suit the needs of a particular moment, however long that lasts. The sadness of a friendship ending, or just slipping away, is familiar to us all.
You depend on friendships for your wellbeing and happiness, your physical and mental health. Even your risk of dying is affected by the number of close friends that you have. And therein lies the dilemma of lockdown.
Professor ROBIN DUNBAR
What is unusual is lockdown. The process of decay, Dunbar explains, has essentially been sped up because of it. And while FaceTime and WhatsApp video might help put the brakes on that decay, they can’t stop it completely.
"Digital media has helped bridge spacial gaps, as it were," Dunbar tells me, "but none of it – not Zoom, not FaceTime, not WhatsApp – seems to replace face-to-face contact completely, in terms of their effect on emotional wellbeing and satisfaction of life. There is something about being able to stare into somebody’s eyeballs. There is something about being right there, in front of someone – probably because it involves a lot of physical touching: taps on the shoulder and all these things that we do without really thinking about it. They are actually much more important than we realise."
Some sociologists also say that friendships rely on what’s known as a 'kinship premium' – the idea that family will always rank above friendship, no matter what happens. "Perhaps with the exception of your very, very best friend," Dunbar concedes.
There is also the 30-minute rule. Very simply, this decrees that for a person to be a close friend, they have to live within 30 minutes of you. "That doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s 30 minutes walking, biking or driving," says Dunbar, "as long as you can get to them within 30 minutes somehow, you’ll do so and that will then increase the frequency and quality of the friendship. If they’re outside of that, they almost automatically fall into a lower friendship band."
Instinctively I want to rally against this – 30 minutes seems arbitrary and, especially when living in a large city like London, unrealistic. Wouldn’t we all be chronically lonely all of the time, not just in lockdown, if this were the case? Wouldn’t friendship feel fickle and baseless? Then again, surveys have consistently found that Londoners do feel lonely (this one, for example, in which 55% of us said that the city can feel like a lonely place to live). And of course, while we’ve been unable to travel to meet friends these last few months, those who are within walking distance have, for many, become lifelines.
I have certainly found this and some recent surveys appear to show others have, too. Multiple polls have documented an upsurge in neighbourly connections, with heartwarming stories of communities coming together and forming (or solidifying) friendships in great numbers.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve all been forced to audit our friendship circles. Remember when people were saying we might need to choose our 'best 10' people? Now we have 'support bubbles'.
But even without the government edicts, even without a pandemic, we were prioritising who to speak to and see all along. The question is, once lockdown ends, will we be able to fix any decay that has ensued?
"What will almost certainly happen as soon as lockdown is properly lifted is that people will make a big effort to go and see the friends they want to keep – but others may perish," Dunbar says bluntly. "The same thing will happen that occurs if someone doesn’t phone for a while – if the gap between calls is much longer than would normally be the case, the following phone call is always much longer. Because we’re trying very hard to repair the damage to the friendship."
Consciously or subconsciously, because of coronavirus we’ve seen which friendships we are willing to allow to dissolve, decay and fade away. Are there greater lessons to be learned from this? Perhaps. For now, though, what's certain is that lockdown has been a litmus test for who and what we value and why. There are just some friends for whom you’re more willing to wee in a ditch.