I felt guilty when Professor Robin Dunbar, an Oxford Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, came on to Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show yesterday morning. He was on air to discuss a paper he has published in the Royal Society Journal on the subject of friendships and what might happen to those we have let lapse in lockdown.
Lapsed friendships – oh dear … there are people I knew would have welcomed a call from me during the siege and yet I just didn’t make those calls – I’m not entirely sure why. I suspect that it was something to do with enjoying the fact that we had all pressed pause on life itself, just as you might press it on your remote when you’ve suddenly had enough dramatic stimulation from your Netflix binge. I for one have had enough social stimulation for years and years, bottlenecks of it just waiting to be digested through my brain – but I never had time to digest much during the decades gone by, because then the next day’s social stimulation always came in and added to the hoard.
However much I have enjoyed the “pause” button pressed on life that lockdown gave us, I don’t want it to go on indefinitely. – Mary Killen
The last thing I wanted during lockdown was more chatter from the outside world, no matter how much I liked the supplier of it. Surely everyone felt the same?
One thing lockdown taught us was, the way things were going, most of us would have got to the ends of our lives without having had time to reflect on what had happened during them. We had no time to stand and stare. We have been bingeing on friends just as much as holidays, food and drink and cultural stimulation. If lockdown was not the time to live life at a pace redolent of the Edwardian age, when would it ever be?
Professor Dunbar, however, says that while family relationships will survive almost anything, friendships can only survive six to 12 weeks of neglect. After that, he claims, you have to put in some effort or that friend will become “someone I used to know but have lost touch with”.
And, useful as social media is in stopping the slide of a relationship into desuetude, you need to eventually see those friends in real life not least because friendship is good for you, medically. Sitting around tables eating and drinking with friends, laughing, singing and dancing and having meaningful conversations is pharmacologically important because it triggers endorphins, which themselves trigger the release of “natural killer cells which kill off viruses”, says Professor Dunbar. In short, “friends do more for our health than pills”, said Dunbar. I know, because I listened again on the LBC app.
And women, says the Professor, are far better than men at keeping friendships in repair: “there is a difference in the way men and women manage their social worlds. Women service and maintain their relationships through talking.” Men, he warns, “really rely on maintaining friendships by doing things together”. Male friendships, therefore, will be most at risk from lockdown because men wont “service” the friendship with telephone calls, in the same way that women will.
It was one thing working from home through the extended good weather but we don’t want to be stuck with our boring real selves all winter as well. – Mary Killen
However much I have enjoyed the “pause” button pressed on life that lockdown gave us, I don’t want it to go on indefinitely. I thrive on socialising. Moreover , as the cookery writer Nigella Lawson observed recently, it’s all very well having bosom friends who stay in touch through thick and thin but with bosom friends who know you inside out, you tend to talk about your problems and anxieties and somehow there is less talk of trivialities. By contrast, with casual acquaintances you can have a break from your boring real self and talk a bit of nonsense from time to time. We need parties and offices so we can chat about things that don’t matter – like tights and food and gossip. It’s a catastrophe that the Big Bosses who have signed off so many employees to work at home cannot see how much their workers’ the health depends on office bantering and pretending not to be as awful as our cohabiters know us to be.
It was one thing working from home through the extended good weather but we don’t want to be stuck with our boring real selves all winter as well. To thine own self be true – yes, but not all of the time. We need to try out other personas. It’s refreshing.
I was sitting in the hairdresser’s chair in Pewsey one day when I heard the bass tones of a male client booming out inanities. I marvelled at it. Fancy a man with a thick regional arable worker’s accent, defying convention in this rural backwater to take himself into a fancy female hairdressing salon. I peeked in the mirror and saw for myself exactly who it was … a local millionaire brain-box who doesn’t know that I know he is a millionaire brain-box and a former pupil at Eton. How do I know this? I found it out through gossiping with another woman. But there he was. I didn’t blow his cover but it turns out he has been talking in platitudes and passing himself off as an ordinary bloke at this salon for many years. Good luck to him.
In any case back to the guilt about the lapsed friendships. I mustn’t be so patronising and egotistical because now I think about it…these ‘neglected’ friends haven’t tried to ring me either.
Mary Killen is a writer and contributor to Channel 4’s Gogglebox. She is the Spectator’s social dilemmas expert in her column, Dear Mary.
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