The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship

A woman sits alone, with others floating around her. Everyone has their faces blanked out.
Valerie Chiang

A few months ago, when millions of Americans were watching the Netflix series Emily in Paris because it was what we had been given that week, I cued up the first episode and was beset almost immediately by an intense longing. Not for travel, or for opportunities to wear beautiful clothes—two commonly cited high points in an otherwise charmless show—but for sports. Specifically, watching sports in a packed bar, which is what the titular character’s boyfriend is doing when the viewer meets him.

The scene is fleeting, and it’s also pretty bad. It doesn’t come close to capturing the sweaty intensity of a horde of nervous fans, poised to embrace each other in collective joy or drink through despair. I know this because I am, sometimes unfortunately, a person who has spent a good chunk of her adult social life watching sports in bars, both with my actual close friends and with 500 or so fellow travelers at the New York City bar that hosts expatriated University of Georgia alumni during college-football season.

During the pandemic, I’ve been able to maintain, on an outdoor TV, the ability to watch a game with a couple of my closest buddies, which is a balm. But the other experience—the one Emily in Paris was trying to portray—has been lost entirely. In noticing all the ways the show misunderstood its joys, I realized how much I missed it, and especially how much I missed all of those people I only sort of know. Of the dozens of fellow fans and bar employees I’d greet with a hug on a normal fall Saturday, I follow only a handful of them on social media; for most of the others, I know only their first name, if that. But many comforted me through mutual, bone-deep disappointment, or sprayed champagne at me in exhilaration.

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In the weeks following, I thought frequently of other people I had missed without fully realizing it. Pretty good friends with whom I had mostly done things that were no longer possible, such as trying new restaurants together. Co-workers I didn’t know well but chatted with in the communal kitchen. Workers at the local coffee or sandwich shops who could no longer dawdle to chat. The depth and intensity of these relationships varied greatly, but these people were all, in some capacity, my friends, and there was also no substitute for them during the pandemic. Tools like Zoom and FaceTime, useful for maintaining closer relationships, couldn’t re-create the ease of social serendipity, or bring back the activities that bound us together.

Understandably, much of the energy directed toward the problems of pandemic social life has been spent on keeping people tied to their families and closest friends. These other relationships have withered largely unremarked on after the places that hosted them closed. The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life—and buoy human health. But that does present an opportunity. In the coming months, as we begin to add people back into our lives, we’ll now know what it’s like to be without them.

American culture does not have many words to describe different levels or types of friendship, but for our purposes, sociology does provide a useful concept: weak ties. The term was coined in 1973 by the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, and it comprises acquaintances, people you see infrequently, and near strangers with whom you share some familiarity. They’re the people on the periphery of your life—the guy who’s always at the gym at the same time as you, the barista who starts making your usual order while you’re still at the back of the line, the co-worker from another department with whom you make small talk on the elevator. They’re also people you might have never directly met, but you share something important in common—you go to the same concerts, or live in the same neighborhood and frequent the same local businesses. You might not consider all of your weak ties friends, at least in the common use of the word, but they’re often people with whom you’re friendly. Most people are familiar with the idea of an inner circle; Granovetter posited that we also have an outer circle, vital to our social health in its own ways.

During the past year, it’s often felt like the pandemic has come for all but the closest of my close ties. There are people on the outer periphery of my life for whom the concept of “keeping up” makes little sense, but there are also lots of friends and acquaintances—people I could theoretically hang out with outdoors or see on videochat, but with whom those tools just don’t feel right. In my life, this perception seems to be largely mutual—I am not turning down invites from these folks for Zoom catch-ups and walks in the park. Instead, our affection for each other is in a period of suspended animation, alongside indoor dining and international travel. Sometimes we respond to each other’s Instagram Stories.

None of the experts I spoke with had a good term for this kind of middle ground—the weaker points of Granovetter’s proposed inner circle and the strongest of the weak ties—except for the general one. “Friend is a very promiscuous word,” William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University who studies friendship, told me. “Do we have a word for this array of friends that aren’t our close friends? I’m not sure we do, and I’m not sure we should.”

The extent to which individuals are separated from their moderate and weak ties during the pandemic varies by their location, employment, and willingness to put themselves and others at risk. But even in places where it’s possible to work out in gyms and eat inside restaurants, far fewer people are taking part in these activities, changing the social experience for both patrons and employees. And even if your job requires you to come in to work, you and your colleagues are likely adhering to some kind of protocol intended to reduce interaction. Masks, though necessary, mean you can’t tell when people smile at you.

Friends are sometimes delineated by the ways we met or the things we do together—work friends, old college buddies, beer-league-softball teammates—but they’re all friends, and Rawlins thinks that’s for the best. “Living well isn’t some cloistered retreat with just a few folks,” he told me. “The way worlds are created is by people sharing with and recognizing each other.” Many different kinds of relationships are important, he says, and man does not thrive on close friendships alone.

This realization, new to me, is also somewhat new in the general understanding of human behavior. Close relationships were long thought to be the essential component of humans’ social well-being, but Granovetter’s research led him to a conclusion that was at the time groundbreaking and is still, to many people, counterintuitive: Casual friends and acquaintances can be as important to well-being as family, romantic partners, and your closest friends. In his initial study, for example, he found that the majority of people who got new jobs through social connections did so through people on the periphery of their lives, not close relations.

Some of the most obvious consequences of our extended social pause could indeed play out in the professional realm. I started hearing these concerns months ago, while writing a story on how working from home affects people’s careers. According to the experts I spoke with, losing the incidental, repeated social interactions that physical workplaces foster can make it especially difficult for young people and new hires to establish themselves within the complex social hierarchy of a workplace. Losing them can make it harder to progress in work as a whole, access development opportunities, and be recognized for your contributions. (After all, no one can see you or what you’re doing.) These kinds of setbacks early in professional life can be especially devastating, because the losses tend to compound—fall behind right out of the gate, and you’re more likely to stay there.

The loss of these interactions can make the day-to-day realities of work more frustrating, too, and can fray previously pleasant relationships. In a recent study, Andrew Guydish, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UC Santa Cruz, looked at the effects of what he calls conversational reciprocity—how much each participant in a conversation talks while one is directing the other to complete a task. He found that in these situations—which often crop up between managers and employees at work—pairs of people tended to use unstructured time, if it were available, to balance the interaction. When that happened, both people reported feeling happier and more satisfied afterward.

Now Guydish worries that reciprocity has been largely lost. “Zoom calls usually have a very defined goal, and with that goal comes defined expectations in terms of who’s going to talk,” he told me. “Other people sit by, and they don’t get their opportunity to give their two cents. That kind of just leaves everybody with this overwhelming sense of almost isolation, in a way.”

This loss of reciprocity has extended to nondigital life. For example, friendly chats between customers and delivery guys, bartenders, or other service workers are rarer in a world of contactless delivery and curbside pickup. In normal times, those brief encounters tend to be good for tips and Yelp reviews, and they give otherwise rote interactions a more pleasant, human texture for both parties. Strip out the humanity, and there’s nothing but the transaction left.

The psychological effects of losing all but our closest ties can be profound. Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks. Regular interaction with people outside our inner circle “just makes us feel more like part of a community, or part of something bigger,” Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, told me. People on the peripheries of our lives introduce us to new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people. If variety is the spice of life, these relationships are the conduit for it.

The loss of these interactions may be one reason for the growth in internet conspiracy theories in the past year, and especially for the surge in groups like QAnon. But while online communities of all kinds can deliver some of the psychological benefits of meeting new people and making friends in the real world, the echo chamber of conspiracism is a further source of isolation. “There’s a lot of research showing that when you talk only to people who are like you, it actually makes your opinions shift even further away from other groups,” Sandstrom explained. “That’s how cults work. That’s how terrorist groups work.”

Most Americans were especially ill-prepared for the sudden loss of their weak ties. The importance of friendship overall, and especially friendships of weak or moderate strength, is generally downplayed in the country’s culture, while family and romantic partners are supposed to be the be-all and end-all.

The physical ramifications of isolation are also well documented. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Brigham Young University, has found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from any cause by almost 30 percent. “The scientific evidence suggests that we need a variety of kinds of relationships in our lives, and that different kinds of relationships or social roles can fulfill different kinds of needs,” she told me. People maintain hygiene, take their medication, and try to hold themselves together at least in part because those behaviors are socially necessary, and their repetition is rewarded. Remove those incentives, and some people fall into despair, unable to perform some of the crucial tasks of being alive. In people at risk for illness, lack of interaction can mean that symptoms go unnoticed and arrangements for medical care aren’t made. Humans are meant to be with one another, and when we aren’t, the decay shows in our bodies.

The small joys of running into an old co-worker or chatting with the bartender at your local bar might not be the first thing you think of when imagining the value of friendship—images of more intentional celebrations and comforts, such as birthday parties and movie nights, might come to mind more easily. But Rawlins says that both kinds of interactions meet our fundamental desire to be known and perceived, to have our own humanity reflected back at us. “A culture is only human to the extent that its members confirm each other,” he said, paraphrasing the philosopher Martin Buber. “The people that we see in any number of everyday activities that we say, Hey, how you doing? That’s an affirmation of each other, and this is a comprehensive part of our world that I think has been stopped, to a great extent, in its tracks.”

Rawlins describes the state of American social life as a barometer for all that is going on in the country. “Our capacity for—and the possibilities of—friendship are really a kind of measure of the actual freedom we have in our lives at any moment in time,” he told me. Friendship, he says, is all about choice and mutual agreement, and the broad ability to pursue and navigate those relationships as you see fit is an indicator of your ability to self-determine overall. Widespread loneliness and social isolation, on the other hand, are usually indicative of some kind of larger rot within a society. In America, isolation had set in for many people long before the pandemic, making it one of the country’s many problems both exacerbated and illuminated by extended disaster.

In some senses, that means there’s cause for optimism. As more Americans are vaccinated in the coming months, more people will be able to return confidently to more types of interactions. If the best historical analogue for the coronavirus outbreak is the 1918 flu pandemic, the Roaring ’20s suggest we’ll indulge in some wild parties. In any case, Rawlins doubts that many of the moderate and weak ties people lost touch with in the past year will be hurt that they didn’t get many check-in texts. Mostly, he predicts, people will just be so happy to see one another again.

All of the researchers I spoke with were hopeful that this extended pause would give people a deeper understanding of just how vital friendships of all types are to our well-being, and how all the people around us contribute to our lives—even if they occupy positions that the country’s culture doesn’t respect very much, such as service workers or store clerks. “My hope is that people will realize that there’s more people in their social networks that matter and provide some kind of value than just those few people that you spend time with, and have probably managed to keep up with during the break,” Sandstrom said. America, even before the pandemic, was a lonely country. It doesn’t have to be. The end of our isolation could be the beginning of some beautiful friendships.