you can’t pick your friends

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French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, once famously wrote “There is nothing to which nature seems so much to have inclined us, as to society” before informing us that, somewhat contradictorily, we can never have more than one true friend. Author Robin Dunbar, in his new book ‘Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships’ thankfully expands this number to about one hundred and fifty, which he believes represents an approximate cognitive limit to the number of people we can maintain a stable social relationship with. Any more and our ol’ grey matter can’t keep up on the details and events surrounding them all.

This large social circle of around a hundred and fifty friends, family, pals, colleagues and acquaintances apparently contains a smaller, more dynamic ‘sympathy’ clique of around fifteen people to which we devote over 60% of our social communication to, with an inner sanctum of half a dozen individuals that we open-up to with our more intimate thoughts, feelings and musings. And in doing so, we realise that language did indeed evolve so that swapping tittle-tattle and embellishing tales of derring-do could replace time-consuming mutual body-grooming. No, really.

There’s no denying that recent innovations within both mobile and video-conferencing technology have enabled inter-group communications to be swift, instantaneous and wider-ranging, with the consequence that it’s easier to manage and maintain a larger social network. However, something strange has happened to our public discourse in recent times: under the cover of pseudo anonymity largely provided by the internet, the accepted norms of our opinions and conversations, and what we consider acceptable conduct, has changed. Yes, heated debate has always generated its share of jibes and insults but never in quite the vociferous and aggressive manner it does now. 

Now, as much as I love to blame social media for the poisoning of our language but, if it has polluted civic life, then we have also television to blame in equal measure, specifically the debasement of the news we ‘consume’ and the reduction of all argument, however nuanced and complex, to a polarised binary equation: right/left, north/south, urban/rural, black/white, rich/poor, red/blue, leave/remain, good/bad, wrong/right et al. Mark Zuckerberg did not invent the style of communication we often participate in, he was merely the first to monetise it.

With the pandemic light at the end of the proverbial tunnel now shining brightly and happily coinciding with the first glorious signs of spring, now is the time to never take anything for granted ever again. More carpe posterum than merely diem and get ready to sink p*ss-taking pints with pals on the pub patio, glug gossipy glasses of innuendo-laden Lugana, and enjoy in-joke chippy-teas with a shared bottle of dubious dandelion and burdock. Furthermore, Dunbar reminds us of the neuro-chemical mechanics of close and communal friendship: those who sing together strangely develop a higher threshold to pain; as well as boosting happiness and reducing stress, neuroscience shows that being socially connected protects the brain against the risk of developing dementia; people with stronger social support networks recover more quickly after heart attacks and strokes.

Friends, as it transpires, truly can save your life so remember to metaphorically hold them close when opportunity allows and whisper sweet nothings in their collective ear.