Outward
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Why don’t we discuss making adult friends?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about adult friendships. Why the adults I know have so few friends, particularly if they are in a relationship or have kids. Why there is such a gap between their social network size and the number of people they actually consider confidants. Why there are so many well-developed tools for finding jobs and partners, but not friendship. My search for answers began by diving into academic research on social networks.

To provide some context, a global social network is often subdivided into several circles when discussed academically: acquaintances, co-workers, friendship, personal, and family. It’s well documented that social networks and the emotional support that they provide are as valuable as sleep, eating well and exercise for long term health and wellness. The personal network is the subset of the global network that provides this essential support. Practically speaking, these are the people you reach out to when you have important news to share, serious decisions to make, or need to ask for help. Needless to say, these are the relationships you want to build and maintain as an adult. Above and beyond individual benefits, strong friendships have a huge positive impact on communities as a whole.

Surprisingly, little research has been done about the strength of personal networks of adults after they graduate from college and before they retire. Fewer studies look at this issue since the world became flat (or spiky, depending on your take) and digital social networks became the norm. According to the research I was able to dig up, an individual’s personal network decreases by 1 person per decade on average throughout adulthood. It has been suggested that adults now have almost 50% turnover in that personal network every 7 years. Though still debated, studies have also indicated a significant decrease in size of Americans’ personal networks over the last 20 years, The most common reasons for these decreases and fluctuations are marriage, parenthood, divorce and relocation. Relocation seems to have the strongest effect on the size of an adult’s personal network and is increasingly frequent in today’s society.

For some reason, there has been little commentary on the state of adult friendships in the media. David Brooks wrote an op-ed article about cultivating friendships last Fall. Brain Pickings recently published an eloquent piece about the rare gift of friendship. Sherry Turkle, a thought leader on the impact of technology on human interaction, has spoken often about today’s weak support networks. While there are many posts with step by step guidelines for how to make friends, there is little discussion about why these trends exist and how society should address them.

LinkedIn_network_socilabAfter exploring these readings, I was inspired to map my social network. There is a handy tool called Socilab that can help you do this using your LinkedIn connections. Each person in your network becomes a node and their relationships to each other are the links between nodes. It was easy to immediately identify the different clusters that make up a significant portion of my network: Hong Kong (where I have lived for the last 7 years), Industrial Design community (my trained profession) and Georgia Tech (where I attended university). You can also see the centrality and closeness of key people in your network, among other characteristics. In my case, there are 3 people who have the most connections among my network, none of whom are within my personal network now. Each of them played an important role at different stages of my life. Of course, this visualisation focuses more on my professional network and does not directly reflect my personal network nor how it has changed over time. Unfortunately, it seems that it is not possible to map your Facebook social network at the moment. If anyone finds a tool that works, please share in the comments.

In order to better understand my personal network, I made a list of the people whom I count among my close friends today. For good measure, I also attempted to create lists for both 2008 and 2001 (looking back every 7 years to the beginning of adulthood). The turnover in my personal network was greater than 75% every 7 years, during which I experienced two relocations, marriage and divorce. Afterwards, I used a mind map to visualise how I met each of those people. While you often hear, “If you want to make friends, join a club”, I can only trace one of my close friends back to such a beginning. Even the connections between my close friends and my wider friend network are loose at best.

What’s your take? I’d love to know if these observations ring true. Try out these simple exercises and see what you uncover. If you’re aware of an ongoing discussion around adult friendship happening online or off, I’d love to hear about it!

5 Comments

  1. R. Schaar says

    Interesting indeed Erica Young. So much truth. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what causes relationships to dwindle. For me, I thrive on in-person interactions, so my past communication habits were all about planning a time to get together face-to-face. I also called people to arrange a meet-up at a moments notice.

    This was easy 15 years ago. We only had phones, slow internet, and all the time in the world. But as time has gone on (jobs, families, kids, relocation), folks’ time has become less flexible and more valuable.

    Now, the norm is to invite people out for a special event every few years or months. And even then, they bow out or flake out (I am guilty of this as well).

    I also think texting and social media has made deeper connections hard to distinguish from passing connections. Once upon a time it was commonplace to call a co-worker I spent 40 hours a week with to chat about something as meaningless as a Target trip. We would stay on the phone for forever.

    Now everyone texts, and I am personally horrible at texting. So I don’t bother. And I’ve reached a point where I don’t want to inconvenience just anyone with a phone call. After all, they might be busy with “life.”

    I now define my adult friends as people I don’t mind bothering with a (quick) phone call, and those who don’t mind bothering me. And my close friends are people who will drop everything to go for a walk… around Target… even if they don’t need anything.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! I often wonder whether the things I am seeing are unique to my location, which is both extremely social and transient. Even if people stay put, the constant relocation of others changes their friend base. I have to be proactive about maintaining communication that isn’t face to face because several of my closest friends don’t live in HK. However, since I don’t have a partner or children, I can prioritize trips to the US to see them at least once a year. Do you think it’s more related to life stage or modern society?

  3. Pingback: The Reliants Project: how adults make friends they can rely on | with ease

  4. Fabricio says

    Maybe both.

    I’m the son of modern society (in the last 15 years I lived in Rio, Umeå, SF, Chicago, Herrenberg, Stuttgart, Munich, São Paulo and London) and also have a family (wife, son, 2 cats, one German and one Brazilian).

    I made friends throughout these years in all the locations above and from all over the world. Friendships for me are a combination of stuff lived together, caring for each other and plain feeling of identification. For some reason, there are some people that you meet that just feels natural.

    Social media helps us to stay in contact but moving around so much, not having time for anything, etc, makes the relationships all too superficial, in my opinion. On top of that, getting older also makes it a bit harder to “commit to new people”.

    The matchmaking for friends seems to be participating on events/activities that make people that have common interests get together and eventually the magic happens, like running, biking, hiking, sailing…

  5. Pingback: The Reliants Project: 12 months | with ease

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