The death of small talk: how the pandemic has made us re-evaluate our friendships
Three lockdowns in and pandemic fatigue in the UK has truly set in. But what are the lasting impacts of people staying home and switching off from online communication?
Cast your mind back – if you can bear it – to 23 March 2020. The UK had just been put into its first national lockdown, and as the population settled in for an undisclosed period of “stay at home” orders, a tsunami of online hangouts flooded bored Brits’ living rooms.
Conference call platform Zoom went from 659,000 users in January to a peak of 13 million daily active users by April, while apps like Houseparty saw a record 50 million sign ups over the same period. With nearly a quarter of employees in Britain furloughed at that time, millions participated in weekly Zoom pub quizzes, FaceTime brunch dates, live-streamed quarantine club nights, WhatsApp banana-bread recipe sharing and endless DMing of Boris Johnson-related memes.
“At the beginning of quarantine it felt like everyone was going through the same thing – obviously some people had it worse than others – but at least everybody felt isolated and part of something global,” says Samantha*, a 24-year-old musician living in London. “There was a real sense of community. I was talking to my friends more than ever and really opened up for the first time about how I was feeling.”
We were temporarily released over the summer via Eat Out To Help Out, which now seems like a golden era of being allowed to leave the actual house. It provided an opportunity for friends to catch up IRL down the pub and ditch the World Wide Web, but it wasn’t long before we were put back into lockdown, then the tier system, then yet another lockdown.
But unlike the first lockdown, or even the second, the latest round of stay-at-home orders haven’t witnessed much of the same internet-based camaraderie. In fact, it’s arguably seen the opposite.
“At this point, even really close friends don’t tell me that they’re sad, that is if we even talk at all. I think people feel ashamed to say they’re feeling lonely because they assume that’s the norm,” says Samantha. “The new normal is to feel lonely and horrible, which means many don’t feel like they have a right to make it about themselves. Also it’s becoming apparent that not everyone is going through the same thing; some people are jetting off to Dubai, while others are losing jobs or shielding because they live with vulnerable people, which has caused rifts between people.”
The World Psychiatry Journal reported that loneliness has increased by 20 – 30 per cent during the pandemic, while a psychological wellbeing study from Queen’s University Belfast classified more than a quarter of respondents as feeling lonely, noting that individuals around the world are turning away from the pandemic-approved forms of communication. Understandably, this has had a massive impact on people’s mental health, with the Centre for Mental Health warning that, directly as a result of Covid-19, up to 10 million people will need mental health support in 2021, and The Guardian reporting today that one in four young people have felt unable to cope in the pandemic.
“There’s been lots of research over the last decade that has shown the single most important factor affecting your psychological and physical health and wellbeing is the number and quality of close friendships you have,” says Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford.
“Friendships are very expensive however,” he adds. “The inner core of best friends, which have this effect on your health and wellbeing, typically number about five on average. They’re the ones who will drop everything when your world falls apart to come and help you out. But to make that work, you have to invest a huge amount of time – 40 per cent of your total available social time to just these five people.
But 10 months in, what is there really to talk about or do with your friends? The “So how are you finding the end of the world?” small talk has reached its limits. And with everyone busy trying to navigate and adapt to the lasting economic impacts of the pandemic, does anyone really have the time, energy or will to invest the necessary time to sustain healthy friendships with multiple people?
“The first important thing in making friends is physical proximity,” says Mahzad Hojjat, co-editor of The Psychology of Friendship, on what makes and sustains relationships. “The second thing is similarities. When you engage in activities together, for example, when you work in the same office, there are events that take place and they become the subject of conversation: ‘Oh did you see what that guy did, or what about this.’ But when everyone is working individually in their houses, there’s not much to talk about, and you can definitely see that people are isolating themselves further.”
Cue the rise of streamlined social groups and intense friendship paranoia. Articles such as “Are all my friends mad at me?”, “Why do I think all my friends hate me at the moment?” and “How friendships have been tested during the pandemic” have gone viral, and Twitter has been awash with people lamenting the loss of their thriving social circles.
“People really have to evaluate what their friendships are about – there’s no superficial attachment to them now,” says Thom*, a 22-year-old artist based in Newcastle. “There’s no point in being someone’s friend because they can get you into cool places. Now it’s about the emotional connection you have with people. The relapse in connectivity is people really evaluating what matters to them, and also just having nothing to fucking talk about.”
As we sink further into social distancing with lockdown set to last until March and pubs and restaurants to stay closed until May (yes, really), it’s understandable that Thom is feeling “anxious” about the lasting impacts of the virus on his friendship groups.
“I just can’t imagine ever going back to having multiple groups that I hang out with, or even being in a room with lots of people,” he adds.
However, Dunbar remains optimistic. “For most people, they’ll just bounce back, and it will end up just being an irritation which you can laugh about how grim it was. We’ve been here many times before – just remember what happened after the last big pandemic, the Spanish flu: immediately afterwards came the roaring ’20s, and I feel like once the vaccines are fully rolled out, we’ll definitely have a repeat of that.”
*Names have been changed