I’m going to tell you an embarrassing secret – when I was younger, I used to count my friends.
When I say younger, I don’t mean like eight or anything, I mean into my early twenties. And when I say count I mean actually count, on my fingers.
I wasn’t what you’d really call a popular child. I was precocious and bossy and a bit of a know it all if I’m honest. Adults liked me, my peers, not so much. Even into my teens, if I knew the answer to something in class, I wanted the teacher and my classmates to know it.
As a result, I didn’t have a lot of friends. Basically two – one at school, one out of school.
Things did start to pick up when I was 15 and my mum inexplicably let me have an outrageous house party, (possibly pity?), and then I turned 16 and somehow, out of the blue, got a boyfriend. (He didn’t go to my school, which definitely worked in my favour. I met him quite literally sat on the street.) Then a few months later I was at college, and pregnant, and probably had a certain mid-90s teen pregnancy glamour about me, sat in the common room, my charity shop Bob Marley t-shirt stretched across my bump.
But then of course I had a baby, and although I had managed to notch up a few extra good friends at college, my university experience wasn’t exactly the shared-house-drink-fest I’d once imagined it might be. Instead I lived an hour away, and drove up every day for lectures after leaving Bee with my mum or Gran. It didn’t lend itself to bonding, (although I did still manage to get myself this boyfriend, which I’ve always been rather impressed with myself for.)
Fast forward then to me, early twenties, starting my first job out of university and again, there I am, driving and mothering and generally feeling a bit like I’m waiting for people to realise how super cool and fun I am.
I can remember quite vividly doing the friend counting thing, trying to fill both hands. ‘Well we had that lunch together that time,’ I’d be saying to myself, ‘so probably I could count him as a friend?’ I knew I couldn’t really, but sometimes I was generous with myself.
But here’s where I get to the point of why I started writing in the first place….
I only ever counted the people I thought I could class as Good Friends. I felt that if I couldn’t call on someone in an emergency, they didn’t really count. I disregarded all of the people I knew who I could quite happily have a five minute chat with, or hang out with in a group of people.
I was WRONG to do this.
According to an article I read a few weeks ago in the New York Times, these Not So Good friendships, the low stakes relationships I’d never have counted as a finger, are actually a key part of our happiness and well-being. Those people you see at every networking group you ever go to and always have a chat with, the woman that works in your favourite cafe and always asks after your kids – those people MATTER.
Think about it for a minute – how often have you bumped into someone you know a bit, on the street or in the playground maybe, stopped for a chat, and come away smiling and feeling a little bit lifted? How nice does it make you feel when someone you’d never get as far as inviting to lunch remembers that you just started a new job and asks how it’s going? How lovely is it too to be able to reciprocate that – recommending someone for work maybe, or suggesting a book you think they might enjoy?
These ‘weak bonds’ fulfil all kinds of roles for us – they give us a sense of belonging, widen our social circles, provide links to potential work opportunities and help us become more open-minded and empathetic.
None of these are people you’d cry on in a busy restaurant or ask to feed your cat in an emergency, but they add value to your life every single day, if you let them. I realised this when I moved back to Taunton, five years ago now if you can believe it, and I’ve made an effort to get to know more people locally, on this Not So Good Friend level. It’s made such a difference to me and how I work, giving me a sense of community and of belonging to something, even if it’s just via five minute chats here and there.
So yes, that’s what I wanted to talk about.
I wanted to reassure you that if you do feel the urge to count your friends on your fingers, don’t discount the Not So Good ones – everyone has a part to play, and we should remember that and nurture those weak bonds just as much as we would the 25 year old friendships with people who’ve seen you pee your pants behind a tree in a field.
How important are the Not So Good friendships in your life?
Great read Jo and a really good point. I’ve worked hard on building friendships in the my life over the last year, and realise I really value these types of friendships – people I see once a month or less, people that are happy, positive and full of support. You’re right, they really do lift you up x
I think it’s easy to get caught up on the idea of having GREAT friends but sometimes a person can add a lot without playing a massive part in your life can’t they?
As a soon to be empty nester, I realize just about all my friends have been the not so good friends for the past 30 years. I let many of my good friendships from college or high school and younger casually slip away as my life took a much different turn and different times. however, the friends that seem to be periodical-our kids are same age, we work in the same place, we were in the same club etc. seem to hold, and do create a wide circle of connection. Some though, I do intend to try and stay connected with nw that our natural bond of kids at home and in the same activities will be done.
Having kids is such a wonderful opportunity to make these kind of ‘circumstantial’ friends – you already have something big in common and that it sometimes all you need.
Certainly got me (billy no mates) thinking. I called you a friend yesterday..oh yes, my daughter said ,what are you reading,’ and I said, ‘it’s a book written by my friend.’ She then said ‘err, is it a ‘real’ friend or just someone you’ve spoken to online.’ ‘Ha,’ I retorted, ‘she’s my friend, I’ve met her in the flesh and look she wrote inside my book for me!!’ so, Jo, can I be your friend please :)
p.s. finished the book ;)
Haha! We have met in actual real life, two years running now, so we can definitely be friends
This is such a great insight and something I never thought of before. You’re right, those people you bump in to on the street do make you happier. Hmm, I think I need to have a think and re-evaluate a few things!
This is very true. I rarely see my best friends, the ones who’ve known me for years who are there for you for everything. But i get on well with lots of mums ar school and tennis and swimming but I’m generally on the periphery rather than on the invite list. But i love chatting to them and hope they do too.
What if the weak bonds are just about all you have? it’s hard having two young children and a very geographically distant support network
Good point, never thought of this before! I’ve never really counted my friends but somehow I’d have this mindset which makes me choose friends. You are right, there are different levels of friends and it’s how we interact with each other that shapes us.
Iv introduced people as ‘my friend Sam’ before only to have them correct me with ‘well im more of an acquaintance’ like being a friend was a bad thing!? If i know someone i call them my friend. Its just a thing. Im not going to say ‘ this is my acquaintance Sam’ hahaha, thats just bloody weird! Yet most people i know i only see once a year if that and usually only in passing. Still enjoy seeing them so they are still a ‘friend’
No way, that’s a bit weird of them isn’t it?! Even if I thought that as someone was introducing me I don’t think I’d say it out loud!!