A new study has analysed one of the most important relationships of our lives - our friendships. But what does it say about how the modern world is shaping us?
Friendship is having a moment. When Dolly Alderton published Everything I Know About Love it sparked an uprising in publication of books talking about our girlfriends and Netflix has begun a whole onslaught of friendship based movies (think Someone Great and Wine Country). The conversation has got so loud that my friends and I even started our own podcast, Girlfriends, to dissect and explore the most important romances of our modern lives.
Now it seems that even researchers are getting on board, with more and more studies analysing the importance of our friendships. These conversations aren’t just happening out of boredom: at a time when we’re lonelier than ever, celebrating and encouraging friendship is the most important thing we can do.
But the latest in friendship-based news may come with some sadness. A study by Snapchat has shown that people in the UK have fewer best friends than in any other country, with just 2.6 compared to the worldwide average of 4.3.
In a country where the loneliness epidemic is so bad the government has had to hire a minister to investigate the situation, this looks like bad, but not shocking, news.
But there’s more to this statistic than negativity, and our British culture might be to blame. By that, I don’t mean our inability to smile at each other on public transport or talk about our emotions, but rather how we Brits value our friendships. Rather than valuing large friendship groups, like those in India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, “the basis of intimate friendship in countries like Australia, the UK, and the US is about finding people who are like you and bonding over your similarities,” the report reads.
Putting connection above popularity sounds like a pretty good thing. When I spoke to Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure and also one of the experts Snapchat used in the report, she agreed with this sentiment.
“We’re more connected than ever but there’s potentially a little bit of a distance between the quantity and the quality of our friends. I think that’s where loneliness comes in: when there’s a gap between the meaningfulness of relationships and how many you count as friends.”
Interestingly though, the research finds differences between the types of social networks that we use. It says that users of more public platforms (like Instagram) have larger groups of connections but less true friends than those who prefer private communication platforms (like Whatsapp).
This doesn’t feel shocking: the types of content we share on public forums are very different to the ones we share privately with friends. Think of the times that your best friend has posted paradise-looking beach photos on their grid, boasting about their holiday while at the same time sending you screenshots of their delayed flights and sunburned selfies. While you may feel like you know everything about that girl who posts her seemingly perfect life, when it comes down to the crux of friendships (emotional support, tough love and genuine knowledge about each others lives) she probably isn’t going to make it onto your list of BFFs.
But it’s not all doom and gloom over on the smartphones. Interacting with friends, whether in person or online, leaves us feeling overwhelmingly positive emotions: “happy,” “loved,” and “supported” are the three most reported globally.
Making new friends
If 2.6 BFFs isn’t doing it for you, then it’s time to make new friends. But we all know how hard that is.
Living up to our boozy stereotype, the report suggests hitting a bar if you want to make a friend in the UK, with 43% of study respondents calling that their most frequent friend activity, compared with an average of 25% for the rest of the world. For comparison, finding a ‘cultured’ mate only mattered to 16% of us, versus 33% of people in India and the UAE.
While alcohol does help to cross boundaries into closer friendship (on Girlfriends, my friends and I discussed how our first night out was a breakthrough moment to move from mates to best friends) it doesn’t just have to be the drink that achieves this. On the show, we all agreed that talking about periods, sex, bowel movements and other taboo topics was the key to getting closer.
In Germany, most people found their best friends via existing pals, but in the UK this type of friendship integration feels neglected. “I think the TV show Friends told us to expect to have one coherent friendship group, which in my experience doesn’t happen very often,” Leaver told me. We have friends from work, we have friends from school, we have friends from our sports clubs, but so rarely do we ever think to bring those people together. In my experience, being invited to drinks, parties and picnics has saved me from loneliness in the past.
Lessons learned? Don’t judge your friendships based on volume but rather on quality. As British people, we may be the least likely to interact with those around us (a trip on the tube would have been an easier way to work that out) but sometimes a great chat with your dearest friend over a pint is the key to happiness.