Exploring the secrets of lasting friendship. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar provides a framework.

TIME is one crucial element in friendship. Jeffrey Hall, an expert in the psychology of friendship, studied 112 University of Kansas first years and found that it took about 45 hours of presence in another person's company to move from acquaintance to friend.

To move from casual friend to meaningful friend took another 50 hours over a three-month period, and to move into the inner close friend circle took another 100 hours.

People generally devote a lot more time to their inner circles than to their outer circles. Dunbar found that over the course of a month, people devote about eight and a half hours to each of their five closest -friends, and they devote a bit more than two hours a month [ basically a dinner and lunch ] to the next 10 who complete their 15 person circle.

They devote, on average, less than 20 minutes a month to the other 135 people in their larger friend circle.

These are averages. We each have our own friendship style. Extroverts spend their social energy across more people and have more but weaker close friendships. Introverts invest in fewer people but have stronger ties to them.

The other crucial factor in friendship is social skill, and this is something that, as a society, we don't take seriously enough. This has become a passionate conviction for me over the past decade.

Social Life is fast, complex and incredibly demanding cognitively. Americans have only recently begun to teach social and emotional skills in schools, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that online life erodes those skills.

But our happiness in life, as well as our health and fulfillment, is largely dependent on our ability to be skillfully understanding of and considerate toward others.

A lot of the bitterness and alienation in the world flows from the fact that our social skills are inadequate to the complex society we now live in.

The Psychologists Michael Argyle and Minika Henderson identified some of the social actions on which friendships are based : standing up for friends when they are not around, sharing important news with them, confiding vulnerabilities with them, providing emotional support when it's needed.

A lot of the important skills are day-to-day communications skills; throwing the conversation back and forth without interrupting, adding something meaningful to what the other person just said, telling jokes, reminiscing about the past, anticipating how the other person might react to your comment so you can frame in a way that's most helpful.

Dunbar and his colleagues Neil Duncan and Anna Marriott sampled conversations other people were having in coffee shops and other venues and found that two-thirds of the conversation time was spent on talking about social topics.

Dunbar's research also suggests that the average person can expect to have a close relationship break down every 2.3 years. That's roughly 30 relationships break down over an adulthood - usually over things like the lack of care and poor communication.

I find Dunbar's work fascinating, though like so much of the social sciences, it focuses on what can be quantified across populations, so it misses what is particular and unique about each friendship.

Most of this research was done many years ago. Reading it in the context of Covid, I often had a sense that I was glimpsing a lost world. Everything seems so fragile.

As we gradually slog back to normal life, this might be the moment to take a friendship inventory, and to be aggressively friendly.

The Publishing continues into the Future. The World Students Society thanks author David Brooks for his opinion.


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