I had the opportunity to chat with a friend of mine yesterday.
He had posted on social networking that he would be at a local watering hole after he left work, and as it happened this particular bar was in between my work and the bus stop, so I stopped in to see him.
He’s a man I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to see recently. We keep different schedules, and run with slightly different but overlapping crowds, and I don’t get out much lately, mostly because I’m poor and pretty busy. So I bellied up to the bar next to him, and had a couple of diet colas while he drank a couple of beers, and we talked.
We talked for over an hour, not about any particular thing, but kind of about everything. We talked about relationships and sex, about marriage and children, about work and hangovers and the social nature of the human animal. We talked about online etiquette, and about the job we used to share, and about people we have in common. We talked about the role of physical versus personal attraction. Afterward he walked me to my bus, amid the mild bustle of downtown Bellingham and the music of our still melting snow, and we went about our evenings.
I was reflecting on this, and it felt like a restorative experience. I know that sounds like a lot of importance to hang on one conversation with a friend, but there it is. We hadn’t really talked for a while, and we had some stuff to catch up on. I have a lot of friends, but I keep up with the ones that are important to me pretty well. There was something special about this catching up… I had new things to report and he had new things to report and we each learned a couple of new things about one another. And I think it was this going away and coming back that made the chat feel so significant but also so comfortable. I’ve known him for, oh probably a decade or near that. So being apart and then getting to fall back into our casual openness and our particular mode of interaction felt like a wheel popping back into a well-worn groove. It’s comforting, but also due perhaps to the time apart feels fresh, and has a sort of perspective to it that you might not see in a friendship with someone that you see every day. You’re better able to see how both parties have changed, and maybe better able to see how and why the friendship works in the first place.
I also think that there’s more to it than that. I have spent the last ten years developing the most stable friendships of my entire life, and I believe pretty strongly that these are long-term patterns. I believe that the people I’m friends with now are the people that I’m very likely to be friends with in thirty years, or if I am lucky enough to live that long, fifty years. There may be falling outs, and there will be life changes, such as moves and births and deaths… some people might even just drift out of contact. But for the most part, the people I’m friends with now are my community. They are my tribe.
What I’m talking about are people who fall within my Dunbar number.
If you don’t know what the Dunbar number is, it’s a fascinating bit of research first explored by an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, who looked at other social primates and extrapolated the size of the human “social group” based on the size of our brains in relation to the size of primate brains and primate social groups. For chimps it might be a troupe; for us it represents our community. The tribe. Dunbar’s number of persistent relationships was borne out by observations of group size from prehistory through to modern times.
Now, the social group among animals, particularly among primates, is a survival strategy. A group of animals working together may fare better than an individual on its own. Existing as a group allows one to hold more territory and thus more resources. It gives a broader range of options for the rearing of young. It allows individuals who are hurt or ill to be cared for by other members of the group, increasing the injured individual’s likelihood of survival.
The same was true for our pre-human ancestors, for early humans, and it’s still true today. In fact, our social nature is so strongly tied to a survival advantage that our brains come with a neuro-chemical reward system built in that encourages us to socialize, to touch one another, and to help one another. The situations are different now than they once were; you’re not likely to have to defend your neighborhood from invading neighbors, and while early human groups (and primate groups) were linked by genetics and by geography, now, with our intelligence and our technology, we tend to have a more diverse tribe linked by similar interest, by profession, and by affection. But we still depend on these relationships. We depend on them to help us when we’re down on our luck, or to bring soup when we’re sick, or to recommend a plumber, or to provide job references. It’s even possible that without our social nature, cities and all of the infrastructure that they contain would not even be possible.
The reason for the Dunbar number is that these relationships require work to maintain. Among primates that work might involve the sharing of food, or the ritual of mutual grooming. Among people, it involves varying levels of trust and emotional intimacy, it involves talking and the sacrifice of time and attention to another person. Without this work, these relationships wither and die, leaving us disconnected and often discontented as a result. We miss out on the neuro-chemical rewards that we would normally receive in response to social behavior. Even introverts need these relationships. They just go about maintaining them differently than do extroverts.
The Dunbar number indicates an upper limit to the amount of stable relationships that we can reasonably maintain, given that these relationships have to be maintained by the expenditure of time, energy, thought, and trust. So the people within your Dunbar number are the people that are valuable enough for you to work for. They are also the people that put the most work into maintaining their relationship with you.
And so, coming back to this friendship was like the process of watering and pruning a neglected tree… the tree was still there, but it needed a bit of care. Except unlike caring for a tree, nurturing this friendship, spending my time and my vulnerability on this person, made me feel cared for in turn, in that particular way that this particular friend cares for me. It was a thing whose lack was felt, whether I realized it or not. And I’m very glad to have taken the opportunity to nurture it.