04 March 2009

You can never have too many friends

I found this article from the BBC rather interesting (3 March 2009)

What's the ideal number of friends?


By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The more friends you have, the more you earn, says a study. But modern life can allow little time to maintain meaningful relationships, so what's the optimum number of friends?

It's widely accepted that friendships are invaluable to the soul but few of us were aware that they could also boost the bank account.

A study of 10,000 US students over a period of 35 years suggests the wealthiest people are those that had the most friends at school. Each extra schoolfriend added 2% to the salary.

The researchers said this was because the workplace is a social setting and those with the best social skills prosper in management and teamwork.

Toks Timson
Toks Timson, 41, from Croydon, has 707 Facebook friends
'I actually know or have met or worked with or went to school with or am related to at least 550.
'The others are just friends of friends or random adds from people.
'Having that number of friends is a lot of work for sure. I'm a bit of a raver and also someone who makes friends easily.'

If a wide circle of friends is taken as a popularity indicator, does that mean the more you have the more successful and happy you are? Or can you have too many? What is the best number?

The average number is about 150, says leading anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

It may sound like a lot, but think of your Christmas card list - 50 cards to 50 couples = 100 friends.

"It's the number of people that you know as persons and you know how they fit into your social world and they know how you fit into theirs. They are a group of people to which you have an obligation of friendship."

They usually consist of an inner circle of five "core" people and an additional layer of 10, he says. That makes 15 people - some will probably be family members - who are your central group and then outside that, there's another 35 in the next circle and another 100 on the outside. And that's one person's social world.

Aristotle said friends must have eaten salt together
Philosopher Mark Vernon

Friendships help us develop as people, says Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship, but the very term "friend" covers a whole range of relationships. You have a very close friendship with your partner but with others it may just be a common interest or history or simply children the same age.

"Aristotle said friends must have eaten salt together and what he meant is there's a sense that people have lived a significant part of their life together. They've sat down and shared meals and the ups and downs of life.

"You really have to have mulled over things with them to become really good friends and there's only so many people you can do that with.

"You can have friends because of what you do together or enjoy something together like football or shopping, but they're not as profound friends as those who you love for themselves because of something in their character. And it doesn't matter what you're doing with them, even sitting alone in a room."

'One in, one out'

There's a limit to how many close friends like this you can have and it's probably between six and 12, he says.

"I think this idea that you can have virtually limitless numbers of friends does water down the concept of friendship. I think it's one of those things where less is more."

Not if you're a socialite like designer Nicky Haslam, who recently threw a party for 800 friends. But even people who don't inhabit the heady world of fashion and celebrity have too many friends to manage.

A newspaper columnist once told of her shock when, having struck up a rapport with a man over dinner, she was told at the end of the meal he had no vacancies for friends. He was operating a "one-in, one-out" policy. Six months later she received a card stating he was now available for friendship.

That's an extreme example but many people view their friendships scientifically and regulate them accordingly.

Penny, a 35-year-old mum of two in Brighton, says she has 12 good friends but of those would only really confide in four
'There's not enough hours in the day or days in the week to see everyone.
'Certain people ask if I'm around to meet and I don't really want to commit because I've got other people I want to see.
'So you do start streamlining, but your oldest friends are always there.'

Julie, a 34-year-old PR consultant in London, says she has three categories of friends. Firstly there are nine close friends - the Premier League - whom she could ring any time of day or night and they would drop everything and come if necessary.

"I try to see them every few weeks and speak at least once a fortnight. I have a rota in my head and try and ring one of them each night as I drive home from work. It shows how pressured we are for time that speaking to friends is multi-tasking."

Julie's next social group has about 20 people, mostly men, whom she would see every couple of months, then there are more than 100 people beyond that on the outer fringes - friends from work, friends from her last job and friends from travelling.

"There are two people whom I don't really want to stay friends with but I don't have the heart to say no to. People I used to work with, they invite you to dinner and then you feel you have to invite them back, but you really don't have the time and it gets really stressful, especially since getting a boyfriend.

"I want to spend two nights a week with him, two nights to myself at home and two nights at the gym, so that leaves one night to see people."

US sitcom Friends
Far-fetched it may be, but five close friends is about average

There is a perception that as society has become more mobile, and traditional family bonds have loosened, friendships have become more fleeting. But on the other hand, modern technology has meant we can stay in touch with more people than ever.

"First email, then mobile, and now social networking sites like Facebook have made it much easier for people to grow their circle of friends beyond their immediate inner circle," says digital media expert Dan Clays of BLM Quantum.

"But the swelling is predominantly in the outer-reaches of their circle, and often the fringe group. If you were to examine the profile of someone's group of friends on Facebook, the probability is that a large contingent were accepted as friends out of curiosity and after an initial exchange, the level of dialogue slows down to a trickle."

This is especially apparent in the 16-24 audience group, the digital generation, he says, so it will be interesting to see if they are able to maintain that contact later in life.

But maybe we're too fixated on numbers, says Mr Vernon.

"Ask yourself about the quality of your friendships, not about the quantity."

For the sake of friendship, some names have been changed

Is it possible to be popular but not actually have many friends? Is it possible to be charismatic while introverted?

Are acquaintances, with whom one has longer conversations, friends of some sort? Do people maintain all 150 friends continuously? Surely one loses touch with a fair percentage.

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