What Did COVID Do to Friendship?
A little over a year ago, near the start of quarantine, an acquaintance announced, on Twitter, that she was leaving Twitter. She’d had a good run but decided that she could do more by being online less. I found myself sliding into this near-stranger’s D.M.s, confessing that I’d miss her; instead of deflecting with formal niceties, she asked for my e-mail. Within months, we progressed to periodic phone calls, and then to daily texting—an escalation in intimacy that feels unique not only during the digital age but in this past year-plus of social distancing.
We still text every day. “Who are you messaging?” my boyfriend asks. “Is it her again?” He leans over and eyes the familiar avatar winking at the top of my phone. This scene has repeated itself throughout the past year. Whereas my boyfriend has yet to accuse me of carrying on an affair, he did, at one point, sit me down with a straight face to say he was beginning to feel jealous.
In his essay “Friendship,” from 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson begins with a parable: a “commended stranger” arrives at another’s house, representing “only the good and new.” Brimming with expectant generosity, the two hit it off: “We talk better than we are wont. We have the nimblest fancy, a richer memory, and our dumb devil as taken leave for the time.” But, after some dinner and some more talk, “the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation,” and then, suddenly, “it is all over.” The only friend worth having, Emerson tells us, is one who remains somewhat unknown.
Throughout “Friendship,” Emerson burrows deeper into this tension between the enticing stranger and the overly familiar friend, between an idealized abstraction and the person who swings by unannounced to eat all your crackers. Enduring friendships inhabit the contradiction between absence and immediacy—“the systole and diastole of the heart,” as Emerson puts it, or “the ebb and flow of love.” When first reading Emerson, in college, I was immediately drawn to the utopian vision promised by his transcendentalist philosophies—at eighteen, I, too, wanted transcendence. Revisiting him now, I’m more struck by the lack of sentimentality behind his sometimes flowery prose. “We over-estimate the conscience of our friend,” he writes. “What a perpetual disappointment is actual society. . . . Our faculties do not play us true, and both parties are relieved by solitude.” Emerson was writing amid a crisis of liberal democracy, when the fervor of abolitionism was starting to show its cracks and the politics of protest were being co-opted into mere symbolism and more self-interested agendas. He may have prized a degree of detachment, in part, because he was skeptical of groupthink.
Emerson, I’m convinced, would have appreciated texting, which affords the intimacy of letter writing with even fewer of its demands. The phone frames your friends in the least annoying and most imaginatively nurturing light. I turn this insight over in my head and then text it to my new, no-longer-tweeting friend. Eventually, she texts back in agreement.
My last pre-quarantine outing was with two women I no longer speak to, and when we broke up it all happened over text—no spoken exchange, no I.R.L. confrontation. Our friendship was already flagging, but the pandemic hastened its demise, in part because we didn’t have to worry about whether we might run into one another any time soon. After months of mutual silence, I made the split official by unfriending both on social media.
Whereas the pandemic helped put a definitive end to certain friendships, others petered out in ghostly whimpers. When limited to texting and phone calls and the odd celebration on Zoom, one gradually learns which relationships are held by enduring fondness and which will crumple amid structural collapse. (A recent essay in the Times, much maligned on social media, offers tips for how to optimize one’s “friendscape” after the pandemic, and, in a startling moment, warns readers “to be mindful” of spending too much time with friends who struggle with weight, depression, or substance-abuse issues.) In the absence of shared social spaces—the office, the coffee shop, the party, the gym—some relations were revealed to be friendships more of convenience than anything else. As our physical and psychological thresholds for sociality changed, I found that certain friendships no longer met them. Gone were the rhythms of the lunch break, the walk home from work, and even—I am loath to admit—the gym date, where we breathlessly traded life updates between the narrow space of our neighboring ellipticals. In retrospect, one begins to wonder: Did I go to the gym to see my friend, or did I see my friend in order to go to the gym?
These questions have begun to wind their way to the foreground, as some of us are lucky enough to be returning to these shared spaces. I will eventually run into the people I explicitly fell out with, and I imagine those encounters will be marked by chilliness, tinged with embarrassment. In the case of workplace acquaintances, I wonder if we’ll simply pick up the coffee breaks and post-work drinks where we left off. (And who knows if I’ll ever meet my new pandemic friend in person.) Sociality, after all, includes as much prose as poetry—mere niceties compelled by the sharing of something as basic as an office or a commute.
Formalities such as these are another reason I’ve found myself rereading Emerson. For him, the possibility of friendship—any friendship—is ultimately not personal but structural. “I ought to be equal to every relation,” he writes. “It makes no difference how many friends I have, and what content I can find in conversing with each, if there be one to whom I am not equal.” To be decent to one of your friends, Emerson suggests, is to be decent to all of them. This might sound obvious, but its logic lately has played out for me during quarantine, when anxious projections and ungenerous readings haunted too many interactions. Shit-talking can be a bonding mechanism; but let us do it with, not about, our friends. Emerson’s ecosystem of equitable friendships offers a cautionary tale for social distancing, when many of us felt increasingly at odds with another, our inequalities sharply revealed.
Good conversation, as Emerson reminds us, is necessary glue for any friendship. But, given the attenuation of social engagements during quarantine, there often seemed to be less and less to say to one another. I’m reminded of a long-distance college boyfriend, with whom each subsequent phone call felt more and more like a chore, until we stopped talking altogether. The dwindling of shared experiences aside, pandemic-related crises also exacerbated social inequities that were already present. Given the range of burdens and consequences, there simply felt less and less we could say to one another. Previously mundane comments around work and kids now revealed the edges of one’s relative privilege, or lack thereof—starting with who had space to work from home, who could work at home (or at a second home, or at the home of a grandparent who could help with child care), who still had work at all (and what kind of work?). The possibility of friendship—of equality—hinged more on class and race and gender than ever. The field of friendly conversation shifted accordingly.
The pandemic reoriented our economy of attention, especially online, re-clarifying the limits of who and what we could care about. Some got off social media, while others posted more than ever. As someone who stayed on, so much of what others said—from complaints to commiseration to humblebrags—felt unusually sticky with significance. No speech act online felt fortuitous, or safe from projection or scrutiny. Every articulation of suffering or joy cut disproportionately into others. Our resources dwindling, I had never felt so much, at times, like the world had tricked us into believing that we were playing zero-sum games. One person’s passing anecdote online became fodder for someone else’s private group text. Which is, I’ll admit, one way my new pandemic friend and I bonded over this past year.
“It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew,” Emerson writes, toward the end of his essay, “to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other.” The structural work of friendship stems from a fundamental social obligation—that we owe others, whether strangers or friends, the minimal formalities we would desire ourselves. The ebbs and flows of friendships over this past year feel embarrassingly banal—more often prompted by no one thing, and the source of no one’s fault. But, just as the dissipation of a friendship might be blamelessly shared, so, too, is the work of its possible return.