How pandemic changed the idea of friendship

Published On: March 13, 2021 08:00 AM NPT By: Usha Pokharel

The way people relate to one another has changed. Now the emphasis is more on social distancing. We find ourselves more in parks and open spaces. Friendships have taken a toll.

Coronavirus pandemic has ruled our lives since March 2020. With lockdown and mask mandate, everything came to a standstill. All of us were like prisoners in our own house. All friendship activities and interactions were on hold. It affected every one of us—our jobs, studies and social life. Probably we will not understand the effects of the pandemic in entirety for many months to come. But one aspect of our lives has for sure undergone a radical change with lasting consequences: Friendships. 

Lockdown meant we were all at home, with an illusion of ‘free time’ with no responsibilities. So, we thought, everyone will be in a similar situation, available to talk all day every day, right? I am sure you soon found out that was not the case at all. Talking and socializing virtually at the same time while anxiously worrying about the pandemic was not possible. Hence, keeping up with your friends became difficult.

Understandably, much of our energy was directed toward the problems of the pandemic, and our social life was limited only to our families. The other relationships withered after the meeting places closed. The pandemic wiped out entire categories of friendship, thus reducing the joys that make up a human life and mental health. An overnight transition from meeting friends to not meeting anyone except our family people in the household was very interesting, to say the least. No one knew how long lockdown would last or when it would not feel illegal to step foot outside again. The entire community was in a shock.

However, after two weeks of this, people felt much better. They had enough energy to instantly resume talking to friends again, apologizing for being gone for so long. It was very relieving to hear their understanding tone. There was no anger or broken friendships. Instead, it was easier to start the conversation with comments on how we were coping with lockdown without judgment. I am sure you realized then that communication, though important, is not the most crucial part of friendship. Instead, it is care, understanding, and remembering that our friends are individuals and multi-dimensional, with their own lives and situations to deal with.

Communicating with friends

The existence of modern technology meant that we could still see and communicate with friends virtually, though separated by distance. Since the beginning of lockdown, consuming social media became a full-time job for all, which was not helpful. It got to the point where people had to detox and turn off all notifications and start turning their phones off for most of the day to normalize. As the weeks progressed, I am sure you frequently thought of people you missed without realizing it. Good friends with whom you mostly did things like going to the movies, theaters, trying new restaurants or visiting malls were no longer possible. In-person communications decreased drastically.

Communicating less often with your friends does not mean that you do not care about them. It just means that people have their own lives to deal with, and we cannot expect them to focus on us all of the time and vice versa. The depth and intensity of these relationships varied greatly. Still, they were all friends in some capacity, and there was no substitute for them during the pandemic. For some the psychological impact of losing their close ties was profound, but technology came to our rescue.

The introduction of zoom calls was thrilling at first. It felt like we as a society had cracked the code to keeping in touch with our friends and distant families. Tools like Zoom and FaceTime, useful for maintaining closer relationships, could not re-create them or bring back the activities that bound us together. Friendship involves emotional intimacy, but people assumed it possible to recreate this intimacy in space. It is not a substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Many times, not satisfied by the virtual meetings, we concluded that serious conversations need to happen in person.

Reshaping friendship

Covid-19 deprived us of carrying out ideal practices, like house parties, dinners, trips to the park, visits to museums and restaurants. At the same time, it also released us from the expectation that closeness requires physical proximity. Instead, it offered us an opportunity to disassociate good relationships from physical intimacy and to open up other ways for friendships to flourish. Those lessons will improve our relationships now and later. There is a reason you miss the people you did not even know well. That is because the pandemic has erased and reshaped all categories of friendship.

Often, we describe friends by the ways we met or things we did together, like work friends, old college buddies, beer-league-softball teammates. Whatever words we use to describe them they are all still friends. A person does not thrive on close friendships alone. There are different kinds of relationships.

Now, every relationship is long-distance because of lockdown and our social circle has narrowed. The pandemic has made us more aware of the dynamics of social life. Now, we go to very few places. This has limited the people we see and visit. I used to visit a friend who lived around the corner every day. Now, I rarely go. When my husband temporarily forgets about the pandemic and invites an old friend over for coffee and chat, I caution him to sit outside, so they meet in the open space of a coffee shop.

Now, because of the pandemic, the way people relate to one another has changed. Now, the emphasis is more on social distancing—in-between spaces, restaurants moving tables outside, taking up sidewalks and streets. We find ourselves more in parks and open spaces. Friendships have taken a toll during the pandemic. We learned in the pandemic to adopt a new set of safety rules under an umbrella of shared social responsibility and comfort. Now meetings are explicitly codified: who wears a mask, who’s been where, who’s been with whom.

So, you see, our friendship is governed by these norms. We are also concerned about the time we spend. We try our best to not linger. I know we all miss the ease of seeing whoever we want, whenever we want, as compared to the frequency with which you met your friends before the pandemic. Now, the joy of restaurant dining is overwhelmed by the logistics of safety and the concern of exposure. I am sure your friendships still form the center of your emotions, but not your physical life. Now your friends occupy the spatial margins of phones, Zoom, Skype, or even What’sApp.

I feel the pandemic's effect on friendships, but I am not the only person in the world. So, I asked around some of my friends and family for their thoughts and perspective on the matter. I found no two experiences of friendship during lockdown were the same. Listening to a recent interaction among children made me realize that younger children had very different experiences during this time. For most children, the school was their only method of interacting with friends and socializing, but that channel was closed.

Finally, with vaccination in full swing, the pandemic will eventually end. We will have coffee with our friends inside a cafe. Looking back, I feel communication with friends has looked a little different over the past few months. It’s not been as often or as constant and that’s okay. Now, if I don't hear from a friend in a while, I check them up, and not take that as their reluctance to be my friend. I learned to be understanding of my friends and their situations. I discovered that having patience and understanding during this period allowed us to better connect with friends. Now I understand some people may have lost friends or even gained some friends during this hard time. No one predicted the current situation, and we did not know what was in store for us. We now can use this time to reflect on our friendships, on the things we’ve learned, and who we want to be in the future. So, parents, don't you think that is a good idea?

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