Is Social Distancing Actually Bringing Us Closer To Our Friends?

Friendship, when orchestrated through the blue-lit lens of a Zoom window, can seem a less-than-thrilling exchange. Socializing online and in the flesh are certainly not interchangeable. But, as we combat a global pandemic, rally against police brutality, and confront systemic racism in our communities (among other things), we’ve arguably never needed our support systems more.
It follows that, over the course of the last few months, many of us have adjusted our approaches to friendship to fit the present tense. We’re unlearning physical togetherness as a coping mechanism and finding ways to make our presence known remotely. We're doing away with our stock guidelines detailing what friendship should look like, and instead, personalizing our own genres of closeness. And the truth of the matter is, many of us would do well to maintain these new habits long after dive bars and bistros reopen their doors.
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So, in the parlance of television’s favorite existential columnist, we couldn't help but wonder…is social distancing actually bringing us closer together?  
To find out, we reached out to nine women across the country about the ways a prolonged period of quarantine has helped them to overwrite the 'shoulds' of friendship in the long term. Be it expressing gratitude, sharing a virtual pint of Halo Top, or polishing the art of the storied Zoom Birthday Party, here’s a look at how the shape of friendship has been forever morphed in lockdown.
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“I haven’t been able to find time to connect with my three best friends from college as often as I’d like in the years since we graduated. We’re super close and have always loved each other a lot but most of us are in different cities, and those of us in the same place rarely have time to catch up. But, in quarantine, for the first time in a long time, we decided to have a standing Thursday date. Every Thursday, we sit and FaceTime and make drinks and play games. And it’s been one of the silver linings of what’s been an otherwise pretty brutal experience for me. We’ve done so much catching up and they really feel like family to me again. So we’ve decided that, stressful as it sometimes is, it’s really just worth it to make time for people who make you happy. These are friendships I cherish and we plan to keep up the weekly video chats...forever.”
-Emilie R., 26, Centreville, Maryland
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“Ok a thing we must address: The Zoom birthday phenomenon. Everyone and their mother knows that a Zoom birthday party doesn’t hold a candle (for lack of a better pun) to a real birthday party. It simply does not work that way. No community of people organized in little squares on a computer screen can possibly add up to the joy of getting dressed up and being surrounded by people you love on the anniversary of your birth. That said, birthdays are special and my roommate/best friend’s birthday took place two weeks ago. It was my job to make it SPECIAL. So obviously I invited all the normal folks and we did the video chat thing and it was nice and good. Then, together, just the two of us, we dressed up — like to the nines: heels, makeup, hair, the whole shabang. Then we had hors d'oeuvres and beautiful cocktails and danced the night away (in our apartment). 
“I woke up the next morning to a little note from my friend that just said, Way to make a girl feel loved, I didn’t know how much I needed that. Thank you. So the bottom line is this: CELEBRATE THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE. Friendship can mean a lot of things, but if you’re lucky to have truly great friends, you should find some big, bold, glamorous, bar-nothing ways to celebrate them.”
-Raven A., 26, New York, NY
“I actually went through a break-up in quarantine which was a big life change for me. It was complicated because I really needed to rely on my friends when in reality, most of them couldn’t physically be there for me. In situations like this, under normal circumstances, a lot of what you do is just kinda sit in silence with your friends — spend some time watching movies or eating ice cream or just taking up space together. After a few weeks, I found myself totally withdrawing from so many of these important people in my life because I didn’t wanna talk about it all the time. All you can do via FaceTime or a phone call is talk constantly and that was painful for me. It felt disingenuous to connect with my friends without discussing the break-up, but at the same time, I truly couldn’t bear repeating myself or delving into my emotional process anymore. 
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“After spending a week or so feeling really lonely, and hurt, and upset, however, I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t an entirely fair approach. My friends were doing what they thought was best. They were asking me to talk because they wanted to be supportive, not because they wanted to make me relive my own pain. And it was my job to communicate what I did and didn’t feel like addressing in my own personal crisis. So I sort of went down the list and let my friends know what I was thinking and feeling and they were so understanding and grateful and just all-around amazing. 
“In the end, our solve for when I was feeling really down about the break-up was watching lots of ‘90s sitcoms on muted video calls while eating Halo Top on our respective couches. We didn’t talk about anything I didn’t feel ready to talk about, but we just got to be together. And sometimes, in friendship, presence is just as important as communication.”
-Kealey T., 28, Hanover, NH
“My love languages have always been acts of service and gift-giving, so quarantine has been really hard for me. One of the ways I always show up for my friends is by cooking or hosting or making little gifts. There’s something very strange about trying to play that role while I’m only interacting with my friends remotely. Like, I can’t reach through the screen and ask someone if they want a glass of water or a wine refill. I can’t go pick them up from the airport. But in the long run, I think it’s taught me that, especially in the realm of love languages, friendship demands flexibility.
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“The best way to show up for my friends will not always be with a perfectly arranged cheese plate. Sometimes they’ll need other things from me to feel close to me or to make me feel like I’m really showing up for them. So I’m learning to channel some of my energy into ‘quality time.’ It’s made me a better communicator and a more effective friend in the long term.”
-Ella S., 25, Bridgeport, CT
“To be totally honest, quarantine has been really hard for me as a friend. I live with my partner, and I’ve really struggled to figure out how to show up to the best of my ability in my friends’ lives. I’ve never loved video calls, and at some point a few weeks in, I just started to feel really isolated from everyone. I felt like I wasn’t showing up or reaching out or checking in in the right ways, and I wasn’t reciprocating appropriately when friends did those things for me. It sort of sent me into a spiral. I’m not used to feeling like a bad friend
“Eventually, though, I realized I was just showing up in the wrong ways [for me]. It’s true that I don’t like video chatting, but I do love writing. So I started to write these nice, hand-written letters on beautiful stationary to each of my best friends. In the letters, I told them I was struggling to show up or be made available by way of screens — I was experiencing this overwhelming screen fatigue — but I really wanted to try the slow, affectionate approach that is snail mail. Much to my delight, they were all enormously grateful for the letters and so pleased to have received them. It definitely made me realize that we shouldn’t define the terms of our friendships around what everyone else is doing. Relationships are personal. So maybe everybody else is on a Zoom call every night but I’m writing letters to my friends and our relationships are just as strong and just as intimate for it.”
-Leah R., 36, Boston, MA
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“I definitely knew this before quarantine, but the past few months have really cemented it: Food! Is! Community! Sure, we’ve never been so reliant on things like mealtimes to make it feel like time is actually passing and we’re all getting stoked about our sourdough starters and what not — you know the drill. But as more than just a way of warding off my own boredom, I think I’ve really learned to understand food as this lifeblood for people to gather around. 
“I am so looking forward to sitting around a table with my friends whenever it feels truly safe again, but either way, while we’re separate, we’ve been dictating our time around food. In our group text, we often share recipes. So when there are recipes we feel particularly excited about, we plan to cook them at the same time, on the same night. We video chat here and there while we cook, but most importantly, we all sit on a call together while we eat. It’s made me realize how much I love sharing the experience of a meal with other people. And it’s so delightful knowing we’re all taking bites of the same food, even from miles away. 
“So I guess in the end what I’ve learned is how precious mealtimes with friends are — whether or not you’re seated at the same table. Something about shared experience with people you love is valuable. And that can be as simple as eating the same red sauce in different cities while you talk on the phone about how you can really taste the shallots.”
-Claire L., 34, Westport, CT
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“My roommates are my two best friends and it took everything we had not to murder one another in quarantine. Two of us were working remotely, one of us was furloughed, and our 3-bedroom apartment is not large. By the end of the first month, it was impossible not to bicker all the time. No one should have to spend this much time together. But we knew we were in this for the long haul, so it definitely forced us to sit down and have a lot of really solid conversations about how we can best cater to one another and what we can do to be as supportive as possible.
“On top of that, beyond manning the logistics, we definitely felt like we had to orchestrate activities that we could look forward to — things that would bring some joy to quarantine. So we got very into theme nights. We screened old films and we all dressed in period wear (old gowns). We had a ‘beach theme’ where we made frozen drinks and wore swimsuits inside, we dressed in ‘80s aerobics gear and learned some TikTok dances. I can truthfully say I’ve had fun. 
“At bottom, our friendship needed — and still needs — both things: the serious talks, and the dance parties. The idea is that friendship requires maintenance and hard work of course, but just as much, it requires joy and fun and silliness and presence.”
-Kaylie S., 22, Brooklyn, NY
“I live with my parents right now and my dad has a pre-existing condition, so I haven’t been able to really go out to protests or events or anything in the past few weeks. This has been particularly tough during Pride Month. Of course, there’s been lots of cool digital stuff and I’ve done everything I can to tune into things online, and I knew Pride wasn’t going to be totally normal this year, either way. But it’s a big part of my life, and it was super disheartening to lose the opportunity to march arm-in-arm with other queer folks in my city.
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“To cheer me up, however, my best friends sent me this little package of Pride tattoos and stickers and glitter and T-shirts and we did a huge Zoom drag brunch. We all ordered in from the same diner and made mimosas, and one of my friends even did a drag performance for the camera. I felt so loved and supported and, in a tiny way, I even got some of my Pride experience back. So I guess the lesson was that we’re always going to be learning a thousand new normals, and that’s going to be hard, but friendship is your constant, so make sure you treasure that.”
-Jackie R., 21, Brooklyn, NY
“I read a tweet early on in quarantine that said something like, ‘don’t use quarantine as a test of your friendships.’ I know that feels obvious but when stakes feel high I think we can put all this pressure on our relationships that’s not necessary. I know my people have my back, and I have theirs, and I trust that. But we might not be able to show up in the best possible ways for one another right now. That’s okay. There’s a pandemic going on. We’re fighting for racial justice. It’s a lot to process without feeling like your friends are holding you to some crazy standard. So when I feel isolated or frustrated, I’ve really been working on patience. Friendship has ebbs and flows, and we need to find ways to be okay with that if we’re going to continue to exist in a world as crazy as this one.”
-Joelle S., 27, Austin, TX
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