The millennial playbook advises that having a lot of friends is a bad thing, verging on the impossible. You should have only a few close relationships, the theory goes, or your connections become shallow and unfulfilling.
“Drawbridge goes up” is a phrase I’ve heard used to describe the period in your late twenties that marks the start of adulthood proper: from now on, between romantic relationships, procreation and everything else that comes with settling down, we can only lose friends.
And yet, at 28, I am making more friends than ever. Initially this was out of necessity. In my mid-twenties, my peers started coupling up at a dizzying rate; as soon as I became close to a new friend, bam, they’d meet someone and no longer be in the mood for a night out – or anything that didn’t involve their partner. The pandemic, with its long stretches of isolation and non-spontaneous gatherings, intensified my desire for connection.
Nurturing lots of friendships was my portfolio approach: an insurance policy based on the assumption that people will come and go. This more-is-more philosophy does not apply to my romantic life. It’s a running joke among my (ever-expanding) circle of friends that I struggle to find anyone I am attracted to. But I feel platonic chemistry constantly: I am forever grabbing a new friend’s hand and exclaiming, “Oh my God, me too!”
Post-Covid, I reconnected with a couple of primary school friends and made the joyful discovery that I like them now for the same reasons I did in Year Two. Colleagues I assumed were too serious for me became “work friends”, and then real friends; there is a thrill in finding that someone who seems straight-laced is not.
Opening myself up to those with whom I thought I had nothing in common has liberated me. In the past year I have mentored younger women and gained as much as they have. Having Gen-Z friends who don’t care about the prestige of their jobs has made me rethink my own approach to work; their readiness to go unshaven has relaxed my beauty standards.
Last summer I found myself in queer circles despite being straight; once, I was the only woman at a party with 30 gay men. Rather than priding myself on being an “ally”, I found these friendships challenged my expectations about when or if I should get married or have children. Exempt from the expectations society often places on straight relationships, my gay friends are more willing to do away with “shoulds” altogether.
Having lots of friends is not the same as being friends with everyone or being undiscerning. That is the beauty of being an adult: you can pick people from different walks of life, rather than be limited to whoever is in your class or clique at school.
I’ve found social media facilitates these scattergun friendships. Just two minutes spent flicking through Instagram Stories while I brush my teeth each night gives me a pretty good insight into the lives of most people I know. And these days, you don’t have to have known someone for years in order to be there for them. In an era in which therapy is mainstream, there is a new openness. On a night out after I’d just broken up with someone, a friend’s new housemate – someone I’d never met – spent half an hour counselling me in the smoking area. Post-pandemic, we are prepared to be more vulnerable; Facebook status updates saying, “If anyone’s lonely, reach out to me” have proliferated.
Can you have too many friends? I resent the question’s implication that, like notches on a bedpost, a wide circle makes you somehow cheap or insincere. It’s a puritanical idea. Indeed, the Bible says: “A man of too many friends comes to ruin.” But the ability to bond with new people surely makes us less transactional – opening our minds and worlds.
The downside, of course, is that eventually you’ll have to introduce them to each other. Part of me is dreading doing so at my next birthday: what if they all hate each other? Or, worse still, like each other, and start hanging out without me?
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World