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Will my real friends please stand up?

Updated on: 20 February,2024 04:32 AM IST  |  Mumbai
C Y Gopinath |

How do you know someone is a friend? How long should you expect a friendship to last? What keeps a friendship going? Is there any such thing as a Best Friend Forever?

Will my real friends please stand up?

In the last 20 years, my questions about friendship have only grown because the old rules and assumptions do not seem to apply any more. Illustration by C Y Gopinath using Midjourney

C Y GopinathThis is not a trick question: how long would you be willing to travel to see a friend? A really good friend? Like a Best Friend Forever whom you’ve known since high school?

I have a BFF in Newcastle and one in Amsterdam. But I’m in Bangkok and I can tell you right here right now that I would probably just text them through some app. It’s too far to travel and too costly.

What if your bestie came to Pune for a holiday while you were in Mumbai? Would you drive down to catch up with them? I’m betting you’d probably have a WhatsApp chat and be done with it. Ok, if you were really close, it might be a video chat.

Let me push you. Your bestie is in the same city as you but staying in a suburban Airbnb about two hours away from you. Would you go or would you text them?

The so-called 30-minute rule gives us a cue. Irrespective of whether you’ll be walking, driving, biking, cycling or flying, if it’s more than 30 minutes, then science says you’ll probably not do it no matter who it is. It doesn’t make you less of a friend, it’s more to do with what that time means to you.

In the last 20 years, my questions about friendship have only grown because the old rules and assumptions do not seem to apply any more. To list a few: how do you know someone is a friend? How long should you expect a friendship to last? What keeps a friendship going? Is there any such thing as a Best Friend Forever? Is anything forever?

The global definition of friendship took a hammering in 2004 when an egregious app called Facebook made it a clickable button. FB wanted you to have as many friends as quickly as possible because that made them as much money as possible. Around 2007, word leaked out about a certain Dunbar’s number, which set the limit on the number of stable relationships a person can have at 150. People on Facebook are always trying to find out who their real ‘friends’ are, you might have noticed.

Dr Robin Dunbar has made a life out of studying friendships and has an answer to a key question: how much time do people spend with their friends on average? The answer, after a cross-cultural, multi-national study, turns out to be about 20 per cent, or roughly 3.5 hours a day talking, sitting, eating and so on with people in their social group.

Just five people in your innermost social circle, called the support clique and most often including close family, will get 40 per cent of this time, about 17.5 minutes each. Ten people in the next layer, called the sympathy group, will get about 20 per cent or 4.5 minutes each. The rest will be spread thin over the remaining 135 theoretical people in your circuit. That’s 37 seconds per ‘friend’ a day.

Dunbar’s findings make it easier to answer whether friendships last forever. Two factors that seem to matter more than others in a friendship are distance and the amount of time spent together. The further away a person is, the less likely is communication between you and them. Even armed with a mobile phone, which makes distance a non-issue, you are more likely to phone or text people living nearby.

The magic number here seems to be 160 km; one study found that the frequency of phone contact dropped sharply once the distance between two friends crossed that number.

So your bestie from school, who told you your friendship was eternal, goes to college two continents away. Following Dunbar’s observation, suddenly communication between you two drops to near zero. 

Unlike family relationships, friendships need regular nutrition (read communication and quality time) to stay well-oiled and alive. A study at Carnegie Mellon University reckons that a deep friendship will deteriorate to a mere acquaintanceship over just three years of reduced contact.

It seems we know in our heart of hearts that if communication stops the relationship starts withering away. Human beings do quick calculations about how long to talk to a person. Kunal Bhattacharya and Asim Ghosh, researchers at Finland’s Aalto University, found that the longer the gap after the last call, the longer the duration of the next call—but only for close friends in the circle of trust.

Dunbar suggests a few simple rules for keeping the flame of friendship alive, even through a pandemic or a time of long separation. The words in brackets are mine.

1. Stand up for friends in their absence. (And make sure they find out about it.)

2. Share important news. (But not too often.)

3. Provide emotional support when it is needed. (And know when to keep it zipped.)

4. Trust and confide in one another. (But remember, everybody needs some secrets.)

5. Volunteer to help when a friend needs you. (No-brainer.)

6. Try to make your friends happy. 

If anyone can figure out how to do #6, please share the secret with me.

You can reach C Y Gopinath at
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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