The landscape of friendships is changing in the pandemic
Deep friendships have been almost automatically rekindled. Equally spontaneously, casual connections are being shed. See how the lockdowns are altering the friend zone.
If you were on a desert island with the chance to bring two friends, who would they be? In many ways, navigating friendships in the pandemic has felt like living out that test. Most friends don’t qualify; some of those you thought would, are not around in these the worst of times.
Until 2020, friends were collected as social currency. There were the office friends, the drinking friends, the hobby class group, the long-distance college pals, the friends of friends, the significant other’s friends. Groups overlapped; there was room for everyone, and the more the merrier. The circle expanded and contracted from time to time, in ways that were usually unnoticeable.
In the pandemic, distinctions that weren’t thought about have been laid bare. As we fade out of WhatsApp groups and click Decline on video calls with friends from the gym, what emerges are friendships marked by depth rather than levity, convenience or proximity.
While the pandemic has held up a magnifying glass to family life, in this period, deep friendships have been rekindled almost automatically, as people make the time to be empathetic and compassionate, to have meaningful conversations, and to develop a mutual sense of need.
This proximity in a time of distress strengthens the bond further, as “stressful situations bring people together in a much deeper way”, says counselling psychologist Raisa Kaur. “The pandemic, in a way forces us to choose people we can talk to about the hard things that are going on in our lives without feelings of shame. Those are the ones we’re at ease with and are most likely to spend time with through this period of misery,” she adds.
Equally, as people find they have less emotional support to offer, they begin to offer it more selectively. “Close friends are standing up for each other in ways they hadn’t before,” Kaur says. “People themselves only have so much they can deal with, so they’re prioritising who they’re going to tie their energy to.”
That’s how it has been for Sonal Rao, 29, a social media manager from Mumbai who says she will emerge from the pandemic with friendships that have been tested in a blast furnace. Two friends stood by her when her 76-year-old grandmother and 22-year-old brother were fighting Covid-19 in April. They made frantic calls for hospital beds, delivered home-cooked meals, checked in all through the ordeal. “It’s a different sort of level we’ve unlocked in our friendship,” she says.
While these conditions could also help deepen what was a superficial bond — there’s more to connect over, conversations tend to be deeper and more personal — the friendships that don’t transition could atrophy entirely. “There’s no room right now for small talk, which means there’s little to no room for the acquaintance or casual friend. There’s a sort of social accounting that’s happening,” Kaur says.
Interactions have also shifted from the group to one-on-one conversations, which provides more of an opportunity for friendships to deepen, says Bengaluru-based psychotherapist Shreya Giria. Where earlier opportunity came readymade, there’s now a lot less room for happenstance. “You have to make an extra effort to stay in touch. There’s a lot more active participation and planning. People are making the effort to find more ways to connect,” Giria says.
Friends are being classified to a greater degree by relatability too. “Each of us is living with different levels of risk. Our ideas of the world and our experiences have changed us” and this is affecting who we relate to and how, Giria says.
Going forward, these renewed bonds will likely recast our view of our friends for good, another landscape altered irrevocably by the pandemic.