Thursday, April 18, 2024

It’s not just you. Our friendships really are worse now—and it’s getting harder to make new ones

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Sarah has her eye on two women in her Italian class, which she’s taking in order to brush up on her Italian, but also just to get out there more—new year; new Sarah.

The women, from what she can tell, are like her: in their 20s, one grew up in a town near San Jose where Sarah is from, they all work in tech, and well, “They just look, I don’t know, like people I could be friends with,” she says.

She’s got a plan to befriend them: sit next to them, be friendly, chill, engage in some small talk, maybe grab a drink afterward at the bar nearby.

“I’m such a weirdo… but you definitely plan it.”

Sarah’s in the market for new friends, which can be a daunting and stressful endeavor. She’s got “going out” friends and some work friends she’s close with, but those are all situational. There are barriers in those relationships that keep her from getting too close or intimate in the way she’s looking for.

It wasn’t like this for Sarah before the pandemic. She was close friends with her roommates, but they’ve since moved away. Sarah now lives alone and struggles to find people who are willing to simply hang out. It seems like anything has to be scheduled weeks in advance. 

“Before COVID I feel like the depth of friendships more so matched my expectations,” she says. “People were just so much more open to getting drinks after work, or like doing something really informal, but now I feel like things have to be so planned.

“That could be a factor of getting older and people having more responsibilities and working more, but I didn’t really ever feel like that before the pandemic.”

Sarah’s started talking openly about these struggles on TikTok—she used to be too embarrassed—with thousands commenting and virtually nodding along in agreement.

She’s not alone—our relationships with our friends, acquaintances, and the people we work with feel different now. For somewhere between two years and a lifetime, we donned masks and were encouraged to stay at least six feet apart. Crowds meant risk, and they often came with a spelunk up the nose. And while we all were willing to connect via Zoom, it long ago lost its novelty. 

It’s not all that surprising that a notification from nascent French social media app BeReal just reveals most everyone at home on their couch or in front of a screen. FOMO? Never heard of her. No one goes anywhere anymore, and we’re prone to spend less time with people. How did we think our friendships would survive? 

Roughly half of Americans lost touch with a friend during the pandemic, according to the Survey Center on American Life. And young women, who tend to form deeper connections with friends and rely on those relationships more, suffered more acutely: Nearly 60% reported having lost touch with at least a few friends, and 16% said they’re no longer in regular contact with most of their friends.

As people take stock of what’s changed in their lives following a years-long pandemic that kept people apart and fundamentally changed how we socialize, the friendships we have left simply don’t seem to be cutting it anymore.

Work used to be our playground

There’s not really a blueprint for making friends. When you’re a kid, if you throw a basketball at the face of another kid you don’t really know and give him a bloody nose, you can still become best friends (true story). Your earliest friendships are typically the result of proximity and convenience: the kid who lives down the street, the kid in your class, the kid whose parents are friends with your parents.

But making friends as an adult has always been more difficult—the internet is littered with advice columns and articles musing on why it’s so hard.

That only intensified during the pandemic.

Historically, many people have made their closest friends early in their careers (This was true of my parents, who met and married in the office). Work, for many, is just an evolution of the social network: from the playground to the high school cafeteria to college quads and on to office cubicles. We make friends in the spaces where we spend the most time.

The average person spends more than 81,000 hours at work in their lifetime—nearly a decade—according to Gallup CEO John Clifton, and we’re more likely to make friends at work than any other way. 

Of course, for better or worse, work hasn’t been the same since March 2020. You may have heard, but people aren’t really in the office like they used to be. Office occupancy only recently inched above 50%, according to Kastle Systems. And even when you’re in-person, so many of our interactions are still virtual. In his research, behavioral scientist and University of Michigan professor Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks has been asking why people leave Zoom meetings and interactions feeling empty.

“Technology gives us the illusion that we were face-to-face, but we’re really not,” he tells Fortune. “I’m a huge proponent of treating people in the workplace like full complex humans and not little worker bees, but we may have forgotten that at work there are actually genuine human interactions that take place.

“These people don’t have to become your friends, but we need that interaction,” he says.

The friendship epidemic

The evolution of how we work is only one factor negatively impacting our friendships. The pandemic is another. But, as with so many things, the stress of the last few years only highlighted the cracks in institutional and social systems that were already there. 

“There was a hope that you’d come out of the pandemic, and we’d be able to simply connect again, then it was just kind of a let down,” Sanchez-Burks says. “There are people who are ever changed by the pandemic and that might not be consistent with the connections they had before.”

The degradation of the quality of people’s friendships and connections, however, has been happening for decades, according to the Survey Center on American Life. Men’s social circles, specifically, have been on the decline for some 30 years.

We have fewer close friends than ever, are talking to fewer friends than ever, and we rely less on our friends than ever for support. As a result, we’re on the verge of another very real public health crisis: loneliness.

Many of us innately have a deep understanding of what we’re missing out on when we only have surface friends. Scroll through TikTok and you’ll stumble through a litter of bereft young women who wonder why their friendships aren’t living up to the Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte ideal.

In August 2022, Haly (pronounced Halle, as in Berry) posted a TikTok speaking directly to camera while sitting in her car in Cambridge, Ottawa. In the video, which has been viewed 1.7 million times, she talks about not having a solid group of friends, despite having three disparate best friends, and the loneliness she feels since they’ve moved away or started to move on with their lives.

“I think that no one really talks much about how difficult it can be to be in your 20s as a woman and to not have a group of female friends,” Haly says in the nearly three-minute TikTok that ends with her in tears. “I just feel incredibly alone and for a while it’s been really hard not to have quick access to friends to lean on… it just feels very isolating.”

She acknowledges she could likely call her friends at any time and they would listen and support her, but “it’s just not the same,” Haly says. “I would love to find some new girlfriends.”

She’s since come to terms with the connections and friendships she has, Haly tells Fortune. As someone who had never been used to being alone, and had just gotten out of a serious relationship, she says she forced herself to be comfortable being by herself.

The friend request

Many of us are longing for friendships of a seemingly bygone era. Why, if we have people in our lives we consider friends, do we feel like we’re lacking in meaningful connections? Why is there an overwhelming sense of loneliness?

“I think [Mark] Zuckerberg ruined the word ‘friend,’” Sanchez-Burks says. “It’s just a button you click on a screen. What does it even mean anymore? Really it’s about what kind of interactions do we have and are they immensely human? People’s assessments of their lives is that they’re lacking these higher quality interactions.”

Our friendships, how we interact, and the quality of our connections has been chipped away at since the permeation of social media and our increasingly virtual world. The way these apps make people feel more connected while also putting up pixelated barriers to real connections, is well documented—and debated—at this point.

It may be no coincidence that the general decline of connectedness mirrors the rise of the internet and social media. In a 1990 Gallup poll, 75% of respondents reported having a best friend. Fast forward to 2021, and 59% of people surveyed by the Survey Center on American Life said they have a best friend.

“I used to feel kind of embarrassed… I didn’t like talking about this stuff,” Sarah from San Francisco says. “But as I’ve posted more videos on TikTok and been fed videos about this, it’s definitely more universal than I thought, which weirdly makes you feel better because it doesn’t feel like you’re the only one experiencing it.

“I read this quote that was about how intimacy forms when you have unfiltered or untimed time with a person,” she continues. “It doesn’t happen just over a 7 p.m. dinner or like going to happy hour. It’s really like when you spend an unset amount of time with somebody and then those moments happen… I’m looking for those deeper connections more.”

She did chat up one of the young women in her class, by the way. The drinks didn’t happen, but they know some of the same people already, she says, “So I think we’re bridging the gap.” It’s a process, she’ll try again next week, and in the pottery class she recently signed up for, too.

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