Last week, we explored the extensions of Dunbar’s Number beyond the 150 friends one can presumably keep track of.
Robin Dunbar’s research shows how one must spend time and energy to cultivate acquaintances (one can manage 500), known names (1,500), and known faces (5,000) so that some join the inner circles of friends, good friends (50), best friends (15), close friends (5), and intimates (1.5).
Closer connections migrating out of those circles can create space.
What I find fascinating is how much space the pandemic opened up. These openings, even if they come from dire circumstances, will create many positive outcomes (not to say any loss is ever literally replaced).
My thesis here is that we are underestimating the amount of work that will go into fostering those positive outcomes. Just like good stress is still stress — the best days as a professional or parent are often the most exhausting, so we need to prepare for the energy expenditure.
There are four drivers of these changes:
1) Partner changes: The pandemic threw many people together more closely than they expected, and it also (ahem) accelerated the shift for some people (ahem) to reconfigure their existing intimate relationships. Maybe I’m writing from personal experience. Pardon if my throat needs clearing. (Ahem.)
It’s not just about romance and intimacy though. Even if one lacked a committed partner before the pandemic and continues to be independent in that sense now, Dunbar mentioned that it takes 200 hours for someone to go from a stranger to a good friend. The math for an acquaintance becoming a good friend may be easier, but all of this requires time, effort, and energy.
2) Job changes: Quartz in April published one of the better summaries of all of the research about interest in professional mobility:
“More than 40% percent of people who responded to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, a global survey of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries, said they are considering leaving their employer this year. Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker survey found that 25% of US employees expect to look for a new employer “once the threat of the pandemic has decreased.” In a smaller survey, the Toronto-based recognition software company Achievers discovered that 52% of North American workers were planning to look for a new position in 2021. For reference, before the pandemic, the average voluntary turnover rate across US industries was about 15%, according to Mercer, a benefits consulting company.”
What’s less important is the extent to which people are running to new opportunities versus running away from jobs they don’t like. Many people will wind up on a treadmill where they run in place, but perhaps at a nicer-smelling gym.
What we need to consider is that there is a lot of Dunbar migration that’s going to happen through all of this. Someone at a mid-size company will find hundreds of acquaintances shift to names and faces they may remember. All kinds of friendships will migrate. For jobs that require a heavy investment in corporate politics, then that’s another lengthy investment.
3) Location fluidity: Now that we’re in the most fluid voluntary workforce shift we’ll likely ever experience (as opposed to involuntary shifts brought on by war, famine, a financial depression, or other calamities), people can work from anywhere. Some of the location changes will come with changes in jobs and intimate relationships, while other location moves will happen independently.
Every change in location creates ripples up and down that ladder. There are faces you won’t have to remember and faces you will. You’ll wind up spending time with people you never expected to just because of physical proximity. You switch from the gym to the Peloton or from the Mirror to a running club, and now that’s another several friends and contacts that change. Again, it’s a lot of energy.
4) Loss: We lost about two out of every thousand Americans during the pandemic — so far. People in more vulnerable communities likely lost more. Americans with relatives in countries like Brazil and India may have more tragedies to report than others.
As with the intimacy changes, losses in closer circles are harder to get over and won’t be filled right away, but they’ll often be accompanied by certain friendships moving closer. Some of those will accelerate without as much effort; you’ll never forget who’s there for you in a crisis.
When there isn’t the tragedy associated with it, and when it’s more about returning to forging relationships that lay dormant and revisiting some others, Dunbar noted (with a prompt from the interviewer in The Atlantic) that “it’s a healthy pruning.” Dunbar said, “Don’t be fazed by loss of friends, because it’s an opportunity to go off and make new friends, which may turn out to be even better.”
But guess what? That takes energy too.
During the pandemic, a lot of us learned way more about empathy. An example of that for me is that I never use the phrase, “Hope all’s well,” as I know a lot of the time, all is not well for the recipient, so I’d rather ask them how they’re doing and give them an opportunity to tell me.
What we need to understand for others, but just as importantly for ourselves, is that we may be going through so many positive changes but still find ourselves exhausted and overwhelmed.
Maybe a lot of it is due to all of these relationships changing. As social creatures, when we have holes that open up, we’re not likely to say, “Oh, whew, that relationship wasn’t doing much for me, so I’ll just take a breather.”
It’s more like closet space – and this may be more of a New York City thing, so bear with me. You have some clothes that don’t fit or fall apart or don’t look good on you anymore, so you donate or toss them. As soon as you see that space on your rack, it doesn’t look right, so you’re back at the store filling that gap right away. Have you ever met a New Yorker with spare closet space? No! We never get rid of clothes; we just make room for what’s new.
Sure, you may go with Dunbar’s “healthy pruning” reference. I’m a fan of Being There (as I hope you are), so I love a good gardening analogy. But city person that I am, I had to go with closets.
What we can try to do with all of this information is be conscious of it and then be cognizant of the energy outside of work that these shifts may require of others. It’s one more way we can be empathic and also connect with others.
It may be just as important to acknowledge this for ourselves. We may choose to be more proactive with this. Instead of realizing that five of your good friends moved away and you have more room in that tier, perhaps you’ll try to become best friends with one or two of them and spend more time deepening connections.
You may similarly want to see if you can make a few friends out of acquaintances in a community you’re already a part of rather than join a new one where you’re adding to the known names and faces but have to start from scratch.
I’m always thrilled to get to see some known names and faces pop up in my inbox, so let me know your thoughts on all of this, along with any ways the Serial Marketers community can better foster connections for you.
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