Whenever the topic of friendship arises, I always remember two blog posts I once read.
They were written by Tim Urban of Wait But Why, a rare internet treasure that combines humor, insight, and witty diagrams. These particular pieces dive into types of friendships and the human lifespan, and among other things, offer two observations I can’t stop thinking about:
One: Most of the time that we will spend with our friends in our lives happens by the time we’re out of high school and college.
Two: For most of the friends that we do see in adulthood, we’re stuck in the “Perpetual Catch-Up Trap”—that is, we don’t keep in touch often enough to do more than fill each other in on what’s happened in the intervening months or years.
They’re depressing observations, but they ring true to me and, I suspect, to many others. Of all the friends that I hung out with in high school and college, there are only two whom I do (under ordinary circumstances) see regularly, and with whom I’m not stuck in the catch-up trap. It’s not that I don’t have and value other friendships; it’s just that life gets in the way most of the time. (Another worthwhile observation from Urban: being near the age of 30 is itself a weird time for friendships, as many of us are in very different stages of life.)
I’ve missed my friends—near and far—these past few months, as stay-at-home orders have kept my family and me from our usual social lives. But not every quarantine-related disruption has been bad. As we all begin looking ahead to the future, and to whatever it might look like to leave our homes again, it’s worth reflecting on what digital habits we can take with us even when we can safely see friends and family.
In many ways, we’ve all been much more social since social distancing began.
“If there is a silver lining in this crisis, it may be that the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used—to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems,” wrote Kevin Roose as quarantine began in earnest mid-March. “It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.”
Stay-at-home restrictions have generated no shortage of creative ways to spend time together: we’ve seen virtual clubs, poker games, and book readings. Social media—when it isn’t devolving into hostile debates over the pandemic—has even seemed a bit more genuinely social. Even I, an Instagram skeptic, find myself magnanimously doling out likes, posting more frequently, and responding to friends’ stories.
But underlying our digitized social habits is a common theme: anything is better than nothing—and “anything,” as it turns out, can be a lot.
I floated a question to a Facebook group of moms I belong to: were there any ways in which quarantine had prompted them to be more social? “We played games with some of our best friends who live in a different state the other day,” offered Molly from Des Moines, Iowa, “and while we were playing, we were like, ‘Why haven’t we done this before?’”
Why haven’t we done this before?
It’s what my colleague said when she mentioned that she and her college friends—who are geographically scattered—had enjoyed a virtual happy hour a few weeks prior. It’s the sentiment my mom expressed when she told me she and my dad had played online Euchre (my family’s card game of choice) with my brother and sister-in-law, unencumbered by their children’s bedtimes.
FaceTime with childhood friends is better than nothing with childhood friends, we’re learning, and phone calls with distant family are better than nothing with distant family. Sometimes, it seems, we’re limited more by our own all-or-nothing attitude—and perhaps our too-busy schedules—than we are by actual, physical distance.
Reimagining quality time
But while quarantine may have been a boon for out-of-town connections that we struggle to maintain, as well as new, creative ways to relate, it hasn’t been without perils for the relationships and get-togethers we typically experience in person.
“Trying to translate your old social habits to Zoom or FaceTime is like going vegetarian and proceeding to glumly eat a diet of just tofurkey,” writes Ashley Fetters, and she’s not wrong. Conversations that once lazily spanned the course of an entire evening now often fit tidily into forty-five minute windows, as if our deepest friendships were suddenly agenda items on our work calendars. Large family gatherings have turned into (oddly formal) panel discussions that test the patience of their youngest participants. As the title of one piece put it, “Zoom burnout is real.”
“At the beginning of this thing, I was optimistic that the kind of large-group gathering I love might translate to the digital realm,” wrote Ann Friedman earlier this month. “Then I Zoomed (alas, this is a verb we are using now) into a birthday party for a relatively new friend. A dozen tiled boxes on the screen showed his other guests, most of whom I’d never met.
“If we’d been together in person, I would have approached one of them and struck up a chat. But side conversations were impossible in this context. Because only one person could speak to the whole group at a time, I sat quietly and let my friend’s closer friends pipe up. I knew him well enough to attend, but not enough to command the virtual room.”
But even while group gatherings feel difficult to move online, one-on-ones can perhaps maintain some semblance of normalcy. Prior to quarantine, my best friend came over every week for dinner, staying well into the evening past my kids’ bedtimes. These days, of course, we’re not meeting up in person. But we’ve recreated our weekly ritual via FaceTime, with one notable difference from all my other remote hangouts: we still spend the same amount of time together.
The computer sits on the table. We try to eat at the same time; sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. We walk out of the frame when one of us needs to reheat leftovers or grab a glass of water. Sometimes my toddler excitedly says “hi,” or asks to see her ceiling fan, or shows her one of his toys; sometimes he’s utterly uninterested.
It’s a free-flowing conversation, without any direction or purpose other than to spend time together, and without any pressure to fill the gaps and silences, to stare at each other nonstop for the duration, or to say frantically, “Hold on just a minute!” and click “mute” if something goes amiss. And though I miss lovely things like hugs, sitting next to each other on the couch, or passing her the baby, four hours pass more or less as they would if she were physically present.
Finding new rhythms
When the dust settles, what will we have learned?
If the only lesson is the value of our relationships, near and far, it’s a worthy one. But I suspect that we’ll take some of our quarantine habits into the future, and not only as they relate to safety.
Where parents have long been limited by children’s schedules, maybe now we’ll suggest FaceTime or online board games instead of turning down social activities later than 7 p.m. Where work schedules or rush hour kept us from seeing friends who live locally, maybe we’ll stay in touch more frequently in between the efforts we do make to see one another in person. And where friendships have been rekindled in quarantine with our newfound digital habits, maybe we’ll keep the catch-up trap at bay by connecting just a little more frequently.
But, best of all: where we look fondly on past days when maintaining friendships was as easy as walking down the hall of our college dorm, maybe our futures aren’t comparatively bleak. Maybe they’ll be just as rich in quality time with the people we love as the memories we hold most dear.