Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha.
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Grown women don’t need to have a “best friend”

If “best friendship” is on the rise, what does it mean?

Emily Gould wrote her new novel, Friendship, in part because she wanted to “address … a lack of depictions of best friendship” in books and movies, she told me over the phone. If this is something we were previously missing, a lot has changed – even since Gould started working on Friendship in 2010. Portrayals of intense, co-dependent, adult female best-friend pairs are everywhere: Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha, Leslie and Ann on “Parks and Recreation”, Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffmann in Obvious Child, Maggie and Emma on “Playing House”. We don’t have to infer that these women consider each other besties; they make it explicit, taking pride in their exclusivity, declaring each other “best friends”. Are anxious millennials, lacking the security that might come from steady jobs or relationships, clinging to the childhood ideal of the “best friend” as they postpone adulthood? 

Gould’s novel, Friendship, follows a best-friend pair through a turbulent period of break-ups and bad jobs in their late twenties and early thirties. After Amy and Bev meet as editorial assistants at a New York publishing house, Bev “start[s] making friendship advances toward Amy”, going out of her way to engage her in conversation. One day, she invites her to a concert after work; they start to take their lunch breaks together. One thing leads to another, and while eating sushi and drinking wine on a roof in Brooklyn, they make it official. Bev confesses that she considers Amy her “best friend”. Amy says the feeling is mutual. Over the next several years, their friendship becomes the primary bond in both of their lives. They rely on each other to fill basically all of their emotional needs. Gould explicitly intended her novel to celebrate best-friendship. “The relationship dynamic is exactly like what I have with my best friend,” she said. Even the “defining the relationship” conversation is drawn from her real life. 

But the real-life-ness of the fictional “best friend” boom might not be all that widespread. Most of the adults I know – as well as most of the people I spoke to for this article – have a handful of people they’d call their “best friend”; the intensity of the friendships fluctuates along with everyone’s changing geographic and romantic circumstances. “I have a high-school bestie, a college bestie, a bestie from my DC days, etc. that all make up my ‘bestie tier’,” said journalist Ann Friedman, who has referred to various people as “my best friend” in writing. “I think of it as concentric circles – a small number of people are my core support/friend group, the centre of my social/emotional world, and I call them all ‘my best friend’ or besties,” she told me over email. In a 2004 study published in American Sociological Review, Americans reported having an average of two close confidants. In a 2011 survey of 2,000 adults, participants said they’d discussed “important matters” with an average of two people in the previous six month-period.

Data on “best-friendship” is hard to come by; it’s only recently that friendship has become a serious topic of inquiry for sociologists, who traditionally focused more on romantic and familial ties. And, as Jan Yager, a sociologist who has been studying friendship since the 1970s, points out, many friendship studies fail to distinguish among degrees of friendship, conflating casual acquaintances and best friends in a single category. Yager’s own research can offer some statistics: for her 1980 doctoral dissertation, “Friendship Patterns Among Young Urban Single Women”, Yager interviewed 27 single women who lived alone on a single block of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Nearly all of them – 24 – had at least one “close friend”, but just five could name one “best friend”. Eleven admitted they had no “best friends”; the same number said they had more than one. Yager has continued collecting data on friendship through a Survey Monkey quiz, and says that over the last ten years, even as she’s seen an increase in the number of “casual” friends people claim, the number of “best” and “close” friends has remained constant: On average, people say they have around one or two “best” and four to six “close” friends.

Regardless of whether a numerical uptick in the declaration of “best friendship” is taking place, anxieties about best-friendship are regularly being airedIn an xoJane confessional titled “It Happened to Me: I Don’t Have a Best Friend”, a grown woman agonizes over what she sees as a failure: even though she’s lucky enough to have “a litany” of friends both “good” and “great,” she feels inadequate for not having one to call “best”. In a 2011 book, MWF Seeking BFF, Rachel Bertsche documents what sounds like an exhausting quest to fill her need for a new best friend after following her boyfriend to Chicago. Some best friends, according to the Daily Mailget couples counselling when they hit a rough patch. 

The pressure to single out one friend as the best falls disproportionately on women. “The BFF (or “[same sex] Best Friend Forever”) seems to be a peculiarly female thing,” Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar wrote in an email. Men in heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, are comfortable naming their wife or girlfriend as their “best friend”. “Men, once they couple off, prefer their best friend to be their romantic partner,” said Yager. “I would say, ‘I have a best friend – well, other than my husband, who can’t technically be my best friend because he’s my husband.’ A man would say, ‘My best friend is my wife,’ and wouldn’t feel the need to qualify it.”

Sociologists confirm that women often do maintain more intense friendships than men. “Women have ‘face-to-face’ relationships where they confide in each other,” said Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of several books on friendship, including Placing Friendship in Context. “Men tend to have more ‘side-by-side’ relationships where they do activities together. They tend not to talk about things that reveal their weaknesses. That makes men less worthy candidates for close friendship. Men tend to open up and confide more to women than to other men.”

If “best friendship” – even just rhetorically – is on the rise, what does it mean? Psychologists across the board agree that relying on one person to fulfil all your emotional needs is unhealthy; social scientists are even growing sceptical that the ideal of a lifelong monogamous romantic relationship is realistic or healthy. Labelling one friend as “the best” seems to combine the pressure and commitment of a monogamous relationship with few of the benefits. Because these relationships are very intense (in a non-sexual way), they are also very fragile,” said Dunbar. “When they bust, they bust forever and acrimoniously.” 

Having one all-consuming best friend may be more appropriate for children, who don’t have the distraction of adult responsibilities and haven’t had many opportunities to meet a range of people, than for adults. But psychologists have begun to re-examine the assumption that it’s A-OK even for kids to have a best friend, and other childcare professionals seem to agree. “I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” Timber Lake Camp director Jay Jacobs told the New York Times in 2010. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.” Last year, the headmaster of a London prep school told parents to discourage their children from seeking “best friends”. He explained his stance to the Daily Telegraph: “It is much easier if they share friendships and have a wide range of good friends rather than obsessing too much about who their best friend is.”

The potential dangers of “best friendship” don’t seem to bother Emily Gould. She told me over the phone she’d never considered whether it’s psychologically healthy for an adult woman to have one friend she identifies as closer than all the others. “That relationship dynamic was something I wanted to be really careful to depict accurately,” she said. She’s glad there are more portrayals of best-friendship lately, but she hasn’t seen Frances Ha: Her best friend told her she wouldn’t like it.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage