Another article about the nature of friendship, this time by Zoe Williams. She looks at a study from twenty-five years ago by Time Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) that defined friends as close confidantes, people to whom you can tell anything. Back then, apparently, we had an average of three friends each.
A few months ago I wrote about Robin Dunbar’s theory about the number and kinds of friends someone typically has: five intimate friends, 15 good friends (including the five intimate ones), 50 ‘ordinary’ friends and 150 acquaintances. Zoe Williams isn’t so keen on Dunbar:
I prefer the TESS definition, or better still, the Portuguese saying, “You have five friends, and the rest is landscape.” I was reading an interview with a young person recently (nope, name, occupation, purpose… all completely gone, the only bit I remember is this next bit) in which he said that he’d realised that a friend is someone who will drop what they’re doing and come and help you, if you need it.
I thought it was weird that a person whose formative years occurred post-internet needs to have that spelled out, but it also struck me that you can only perform that office for a handful of people, and you would ideally (unless you’re some kind of grifter) want a balance, between the people who you’ll drop everything for, and those who’ll drop everything for you.
So I have five friends. For my own amusement, I shuffle them up and down the top-five hierarchy, and sometimes kick one out for a new friend, only to have to put them back in when I remember that you can’t make old friends. A couple of couples I bust in on a technicality, by thinking of them as one person. But still, five friends. The rest is landscape.
You can see the brief interviews that follow the article, where a few ordinary people are brave enough to speak about how few close friends they really have.