• Keeping Friends

When it comes to friendships, who is counting?

Published: November 17, 2007 | Last Updated: April 5, 2024 By | 1 Reply Continue Reading

Dunbar’s number expresses the limits in the number of friendship we can maintain.

When it comes to friendships, it’s not how long or how close or how good. Instead, the latest craze seems to be how many. No one is quite sure how many friends you need or how many you can have. Given the number vacuum, some members of social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn are accreting new friends like young boys collects baseball cards—acquiring impressive numbers of online “friends” that approach the hundreds and thousands.

Such excess raises the question—How many friendships, real, virtual or a combination of the two—can any one person reasonably handle? It depends on who you are and what it means for you to befriend someone. Are your friendships casual or close? Are they intense or intermittent? Are they brief or long-standing?

Every woman I know has a finite amount of time for friendship (which varies based on how she chooses to balance her social needs with the rest of her life). Additionally, some women are naturally more adept than others in both making friends and keeping them.

British anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar has conducted research that concludes that humans are functionally hard-wired to handle a maximum of 150 friends at a time. That number, 150, has been dubbed Dunbar’s Number. The term was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point and has been cited recently in a spate of news articles.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Carl Bialik (AKA the Numbers Guy) suggests that technology may actually enable us to expand the number of friends we can juggle simultaneously. He points out that social networking sites can help us maintain contact with people who are at the outer fringes of our circle of friends. Cell phones, emails, and IMs have similarly expanded our capability to reach out and touch someone.

“Prof. Dunbar isn’t sold on the idea that social networks make his number outdated,” writes Bialik. “The research, he says, ‘made us realize people don’t know what these wretched things called relationships are — and that helps explain why we’re so bad at them.’”

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I do have several friends who are “legacy” friends. I’m friends with them because I’ve been friends with them for so long that it would be too much trouble to break up. These are women whose phone numbers are imprinted on my brain even though I only call them once or twice a year, if that. But I would count them in my friend tally, because, frankly, I don’t have that many.

    A woman I know told a story about having a circle of 9 friends with whom she had been close since they were 14 (she’s in her 50s and retired now). My first thought was that she was one of the popular girls in high school to have had that many friends then. But it takes more than popularity to maintain those ties long-term.

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