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New Thinking.

The death of the social butterfly

Covid and the cost of living crisis have changed friendship. The main cast is still here, but there is no budget for the guest stars any more.

By Marie Le Conte

“I think you should do your next column about that,” my friend said, sipping on his fourth, perhaps fifth, pint. I nodded solemnly, holding my fourth, perhaps fifth, glass of wine of the evening in my hand.

We’d only agreed to go for a quick drink in our local pub, but somehow we’d kept chatting. The conversation had got more and more personal and, well, you’re going to need some booze to deal with that. This is Britain.

Anyway, we were there, half-cut, lamenting the disappearance of a formerly beloved species: the social butterfly. If you aren’t one yourself, you definitely know some of them; they probably won’t be in your close circle of friends but you’ll see them once in a while, at bigger gatherings.

“Not a core cast member but more of a recurring guest star” is how a friend used to describe himself. I usually go for “second circle”. Most friendship groups have an inner circle, which I’m usually not a part of, but I sit just outside several of them.

[See also: What is romantic friendship?]

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It’s not a life for everyone but it’s a life I enjoy. You get to endlessly jump from group to group, meet plenty of new people, and you can sweep the commitment issues you probably have way under the carpet. There is also a greediness to it which I’ve come to really cherish. Why should I pick my people when there are so many good ones out there? Why shouldn’t I have it all?

In quite an absurdly unexpected turn of events, the British government answered those questions for me in September 2020, when in the ebb and flow of lockdown regulations it introduced the “rule of six”. Suddenly you could socialise – but only in smaller groups. Every pub, at least in London, also required advance booking – and, ideally, the blood of a virgin sacrificed on a full moon.

Because we were all thrilled to be able to go out again after months in lockdown, little time was spent trying to understand what this did to our social lives. We could go out, sure, but spontaneity was mostly gone. Tables were reserved in advance and you couldn’t text a handful of people on the day, seeing if they wanted to join in on some pre-existing plans. Quietly, social butterflies started falling through the cracks.

It took some time after the end of the pandemic for people to fully regain their social muscle, and begin organising larger events again. It took so long, in fact, that it only lasted for a short time until Britain was hit by the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation. To quote a probably fake but very viral 1947 snippet from the Cincinnati Enquirer, “The saying ‘Life is just one damn thing after another’ is a gross understatement. The damn things overlap.”

We escaped from the frying pan and marched straight into the fire. Rents and mortgages are too expensive now, and so are groceries and everything that makes life worth living. People are still going out, sure, but few are still going out as much as they used to, or as much as they want to be. The end result is similar to that of the rule of six; the main cast is still here, but there is no budget for the guest stars any more.

Because the change was gradual, it took some time to become noticeable. For a while I thought I was the problem; like an angsty teenager, I assumed that my friends had got bored of me, and decided to go forth with their lives while leaving me behind. I knew it was an undignified fear to have in one’s thirties but I couldn’t help it. How else could I explain why my social butterflying suddenly fell flat?

[See also: It’s time to accept it: there’s no easy, painless way to break up with a friend]

Then people – my people – started talking to me about it. It is mortifying to admit that you’re feeling quite lonely and needy. It’s not something adults usually volunteer. Still, I was clearly so maudlin that the confessions came. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone; many others felt like they’d fallen through the cracks as well, victims of having once wanted to have it all.

Getting to whinge and whine with kindred spirits was cathartic, but didn’t offer much in the way of solutions. We used to enjoy our lives because they felt weightless and required little effort. Gravity has now caught up with us, and it isn’t something you can wish away.

Perhaps things will change again, when the damn things decide to give us a break. People’s lives will get bigger again and we will be able to start floating around them, as we used to. It would be good for us but also good for them. Social butterflies have many uses; we come with new people and stories and ideas, and we always have the good gossip.

I wish I could say that you should tend to us now because otherwise we’ll disappear but that’s not true, is it? We’ll be here, waiting for spring. It’s all we know.

Read more:

Why has it taken me so long to form friendships with other women of colour?

We’re told not to have too many friends – but for me, there’s no such thing

Is climate anxiety ruining my friendships?

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