I like to worry. On the way to work, I worry whether the black pants I put on in the early morning light are actually blue. I remember something I said five years ago and immediately blush with embarrassment. Recent research says that only about half of perceived friendships are mutual so now I have something new to worry about. According to a March study published in the PLOS, this discrepancy may have more to do with the confusion over what friendship actually is. Surprisingly, making a friend is not as easy as adding someone on Facebook.
In the weird world of adulthood, it's hard to make new friends. "You have to be much more diligent about making friends out of college because you are not surrounded by people your age day in and day out," says my close friend Mariel. As a child, "I like your toy, wanna play?" is normal. Say that in Starbucks and you'll get arrested. How do we meet people when we work in cubicles all day? How do you initiate a new friendship when you are an awkward person? (Asking for a friend.) Given the issue of where to meet friends and how to do it, several of my close friends from childhood and college agreed to talk about the first time we met. I encourage you to ask your friends about this even if you aren't writing an editor's letter, because the answers are hilarious and enlightening.
"[Friendship] is not a means to obtain higher status, wangle an invitation to someone's vacation home or simply escape your own boredom," writes Kate Murphy in her New York Times article, "Do Your Friends Actually Like You?" Murphy explains that, unlike the glamorous celebrity squads known for their strategic friendships, authentic friendship does not have ulterior motives. It's difficult to keep our friendships pure when coffee dates and girls nights out don't count unless we post them on Instagram. The added pressure of social media makes us think everyone has a large, solid squad of best friends, when in reality that number is smaller than it appears.
The magic number is 5, says evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. We typically only have the emotional energy to fully dedicate ourselves to five close relationships, including a romantic partner, with lesser-quality friendships following. These friendships are still important, but they don't involve the same level of commitment and intimacy of your closet relationships. According to Nicola, my good friend since our awkward high school years, it's natural for your friend group to change as you grow older. "I think I've realized even more since I left school that it's not about the number of friends you have but the quality of those friends," says Nicola. "As I've grown up, some of my friendships have changed because I have discovered that they don't value the same aspects of life as me and whilst we could probably still have fun together there's also more serious things in life that are also important."
Interviewing my friends for this article reassured me that while it's valid to question whether my black (or are they a super dark navy blue?) pants match my black blouse, I don't need to worry whether those friendships are reciprocated. Friendship is an essential part of our everyday happiness and, as with most things in life, you get what you give. From your work wife to your Friday night partner-in-time, college bestie, or childhood confidante, the people who matter most to you are worth working for. Strong, authentic friendships encourage us and provide the support we need to make it through long Mondays, break-ups and the bumps in life.
Stay tuned for our #ittakesasquad week, a celebration of friendship.
feature photo via Unsplash