It’s not that I don’t enjoy smart, funny, great people. I’m one of the biggest extroverts I know, and my friends mean the world to me. But being a friend-collector means that you also need to know when to stop.
Doctors with full schedules can stop taking new patients. Crowded restaurants can stop taking reservations. If someone tries to set you up with a romantic prospect and you’re in a relationship, you simply say that. End of conversation.
But what do single, childless people say when they’re not taking on any more friends? Our time and capacity for connection is limitless, right?
Wrong. I don’t want new friends, and that’s okay.
With social media, we’re sort-of friends with everyone. But truly being friends with someone takes a lot of time, attention and care. I take those relationships seriously, which means that I’d rather spend my precious free time catching up with the buddies I already have than get drinks with a potential new one on a Tuesday night.
Science backs me up here, with Dunbar’s number, also known as the brain’s limits on how many friends it can hold. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has found that the average person can handle about 150 casual friends; 50 close ones; 15 closer ones and then five people, which might include family members, in his or her main support group.
“The amount of social capital you have is pretty fixed,” Dunbar told New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova. “It involves time investment. If you garner connections with more people, you end up distributing your fixed amount of social capital more thinly so the average capital per person is lower.”
In other words: The more casual friendships you have, the more casual your close ones become.
I’ve been on enough platonic set-ups to know that, if I’m not looking for anything serious, I’m better off not going. These casual friend-dates have helped me finally understand and identify with the psyche of the noncommittal 20- or 30-something dude. I could be one drink in, enjoying some get-to-know-you conversation and all of a sudden this new friend is talking about all these things we can do together in the future, and I start to feel smothered. Too many of her friends, you see, are married with kids, and she needs more single girlfriends. But I don’t — and that mismatch of expectations gets awkward real fast.
In such moments, the words of journalist Samantha Henig about the the limits of friendship also come to mind. “Saying no has become something I treasure, an assertion of the very adult realization that my time has value,” Henig wrote in a book she co-authored with her mother.
But we don’t have quick, easy ways of saying: “I’m all good on the friend front, thanks.” I’ve tried being vague and evasive: “Hey, would love to, but things are really busy right now; let’s get back in touch next month.” But that doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t work for very long, either.
I finally replied to that introductory e-mail yesterday, three weeks overdue, to say I was falling behind with the friends I already have and wasn’t scheduling any new friend-dates right now. And you know what? It felt great.