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The Futile Friend Count
Forget about measuring the number of friends you have against some purported ideal.
In the introduction to a volume of essays on my favorite philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a comment from the editor made me sputter out loud: “[Wittgenstein] never managed to have more than a friend or two at a time.” First, having read much biographical material about him, I thought that was patently untrue. And more to the point for Introvert UpThink, even if it were true, so what? The comment implies that people who have just one or two friends are gravely flawed, pitiable or abnormal.
A while back, when I surveyed introverts in my subscriber base with various questions about marketing, a good number of respondents expressed the view that quality counted for them, not quantity. They didn’t respect anyone more because of their number of followers, their earnings or their number of likes. They refused to treat their own customers or clients as faceless statistics mattering only in the aggregate. Instead, they wanted to treat them the way they felt a person deserved to be treated one-on-one.
I suspect many introverts would apply the principle of quality over quantity to friends as well. Introverts relate to others more comfortably one at a time than in the midst of a crowd. We don’t enjoy trivial social chitchat and would rather have a deeply personal conversation or two. Accordingly, judging someone’s relationships by how many connections there are sells introverts short. Being judged that way can be painful and harmful. Judging oneself that way is even worse. Yet you can find many people asking online, “What’s the ideal number of friends to have?” or “How many friends is it healthy to have?”
When I was in my teens, my mother had several talks with me suggesting that I try harder to make and spend time with friends. Although I didn’t push back at this, I didn’t take her advice or its underlying extroverted premise to heart, either. I had a few friends. I could blab up a storm on the phone like any other young teenager, and I had sleepovers with girls (one at a time) whom I’d become close with at summer camp. In high school I had two boyfriends (also one at a time). But I was happier than my mother felt I should be to be alone with a book or apart from any social whirl.
Fortunately, responsible experts at sites like Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Mayo Clinic now respond to the question about how many friends we should have by emphasizing the importance of supportive, meaningful relationships more than any number. On the other hand, some articles on the topic do cite an ideal number: three to five. Note how far that number range is from the number of “friends” many people are proud to display on Facebook or Instagram.
I put the word “friends” in quotes there because followers on social media are one’s friends only in the sense that someone might throw an arm around someone else they’d just met in a bar and introduce him or her to a third person as “my friend here.” That would have to be an extrovert talking. Introverts are much more selective about who we consider our friends.
Introverts would probably agree with the definition of Maria Popova: “A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it would not diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.” Surely even extroverts have just a few folks in their circles with whom they relate on that level. Introverts would probably also agree with something Aristotle wrote two millennia ago: “He who hath many friends hath none.”