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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Friendship Adds Up: Sunday musings…12/3/2023

Anyone who has spent a minute around this little corner of the interverse is familiar with my deep interest in friendship. What does it mean? What makes a friend? A best friend? Does your spouse count when you are adding up the numbers of friends you have? What are the rules–are there any rules–regarding geography, means of contact, stuff like that? I love to read about all of this stuff whenever and wherever it comes up. The November 11 WSJ “Numbers” column brought a little bit of new science to my quest.

A quickish review of some of the stuff I’ve droned on about would start with my own definition of the concentric circles that define and delineate friends. At the very center one finds close, sometimes best friends. In my opinion this can most definitely include your spouse/significant other. This is typically a fairly small space, or probably more accurately a space that has a small number of occupants. In this life I think anyone who has a single best friend is blessed; those with more than one close friend live lives of emotional bounty. These are friends with whom you share pretty much everything. You would drop whatever you are doing in they were in true need, and they would do the same for you.

Surrounding this inner circle is our circle of true, or real friends. This group knows an awful lot about you and what makes you tick. You share with them a mutual desire to be together, and you both make concerted efforts to do so. These are the folks who invite you to dinner and accept nearly all of your invitations in return. There may be easily parsed shared experiences or circumstances that both brought and keep you together. Think parents of classmates who travel through the school years together, or the folks sitting with you in the crowd at soccer games or dance recitals. A couple or perhaps a few “graduate” with you and you stay on each other’s invite lists. With any luck next life phase friends enter this zone and your roster remains robust and dynamic.

This is the group that forms your first sports fantasy league, and these are the first people with whom you play pickleball!

Robin Dunbar, the famous British anthropologist, gets credit for the next circle of people orbiting your life: quality relationships. This group knows more about you than just your name or what you do for a living. Based on his research on brain size and other metrics Dunbar estimates that this number is no more than 150. “Dunbar’s number” does not apply to acquaintances, but rather that group of people who’s name triggers a picture in your head and a virtual bio or status report on their connection to you. Think co-workers or professional colleagues, neighbors, and perhaps those folks who didn’t get carried in your group of “true friends” at graduation.

This is typically where the science, the math of my investigation of the topic would run out of steam. Surrounding your “quality relationships” was a much larger sphere defined as “acquaintances”, a group for which I previously had neither a tidy description nor an estimate of its numbers. Here is where Josh Zumbrun, the author of the “Numbers” column comes to the rescue. Tyler McCormick, a professor at the University of Washington, defines an acquaintance thusly: you know them and they know you by sight or by name, they live in the United States, and there has been some sort of contact in the past two years. Now I admit that I have not yet read the source material so I cannot say for sure what “contact” means. Call, text or email for sure. Comment on a Facegram TweetTock? Dunno. Still, it’s a much tighter definition than my “much bigger group of folks circling your friends who you’ve met once or twice” stab at it.

Here’s the fun part: McCormick and his co-authors devised a method to determine how big this group is for any one individual. 611. Really. The average number is 611. Four times Dunbar’s number. Wild, huh? They came up with a really cool workaround so that their subjects didn’t need to do a deep dive into every single contact list. Each subject was asked to count how many people they knew named Michael, Stephanie, James, or 9 other common names. For example, about 1% of Americans are “Michael’s”; if you know 6 Michaels you probably know about 600 people. Remember, this gives a round number, but it’s probably pretty accurate. If you are a bit of a hermit with few acquaintances there could be an over counting depending on the name game, and conversely if you are one of Gladwell’s “super connectors” (from his book “Tipping Point”), you may find your circle got cheated.

Either way, the math is cool. Three or fewer close friends centering your life, maybe one or two dozen good friends, with 150 quality friendships orbiting them, all surrounded by 600 or so acquaintances, your little concentric circles hurtling through a universe of people yet unmet.

There is movement into and out of your little little galaxy in that outer layer, and movement within as people move between levels. If you are fortunate your close friends remain close; if there is movement in the middle it is only inward. Of course this is not a given. People move in and out for countless reasons, but the math appears to be agnostic. Still, I think the conclusion to this tiny musing, however clever McCormick and Dunbar and the muses still running “The Good Life” research on happiness may be, remains the same as that which brought each of my prior investigations on friendship across the finish line: these numbers are not unbreechable limits on any of us in our own tiny friendship universes.

You can never have enough friends.

I’ll see you next week…

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