Mary Gentry doesn’t like to use the word “retired.” The engineer, former federal banking executive, and now consultant was looking for ways to stay busy once the pandemic slowed her workflow and the lockdown ended her ability to host dinner parties or visit friends domestically and internationally.
“Friendship has always been important to me,” she says. “My first friend from kindergarten and I are still in touch several times a year, even though we have had different paths. With time on my hands during the pandemic, I asked myself, ‘What is Cindy doing?’’”
And so, Mary reached out to Cindy — and 30-plus other friends from her past. “I thought about the parents I met when my now-adult son was in playgroups, and I wondered, Where are they now?” she says. “I made a list that included teachers and friends from high school and college, as well as former work colleagues and neighbors. Many had had name changes, and some I knew before there were cellphones or email.”
There were a few Mary couldn’t locate, she says, “but those whom I contacted were so warm. Their reactions encouraged me to keep doing this. They had wondered about me, too.”
I met Mary during a Sisters in Solidarity discussion session for Harvard Business School alumnae of color, and we have since become friends. When I heard Mary describe her lockdown activity, I realized that several people had recently called me as if out of the blue. The calls were from an art dealer, whom I hadn’t been in direct touch with for more than two years; a colleague from my very first job; and a young man who had been ill with symptoms of COVID-19 when I last saw him at a Zoom birthday party. He wanted to let me know he had recovered.
Trends in friendship
Individuals are just beginning to assess the impact of the last 18 months of the pandemic’s forced isolation, even as some policymakers in the U.S. and abroad are issuing new mask mandates and other restrictions in the face of the Delta variant. Some are saying pandemic guidance is “in moonwalk mode, facing forward but sliding backward,” as the Brown Estate Vineyards’ August newsletter phrased it.
Lockdowns isolated people from their friends and relations, exacerbating a trend that is being called “America’s friendscape crisis.” May polling by the Survey Center on American Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute, found that only 13% of U.S. adults say they have 10 or more close friends, versus 33% in 1990. Also, today, 59% say they have a best friend, versus 75% in 1990. Perhaps those declines explain why only 16% say they turn first to a friend when a personal problem arises; in 1990, 26% reported doing so.
The “friendscape crisis” is thought to be the result of Americans being more geographically mobile, marrying later, and/or working longer hours. The pandemic has had some impact, but the survey results present a mixed bag. Almost half of Americans (47%) said they had lost touch with at least a few friends. (I know that I have lost touch with several, and I just couldn’t muster the emotional energy to send out holiday cards in 2020 for the first time in almost two decades.) On the other hand, almost half of Americans in the survey (46%) said they had made a new friend during the pandemic.
Indeed, Mary became one of my new friends during the lockdown, and her example prompted me to conduct my own informal poll. I asked several longtime friends what new activities they started during the lockdown that they plan to continue. Not all responses related to friendships. One friend began bird watching with her local historical society. Several mentioned taking long walks; another noted that she’s going to bed earlier and therefore getting more sleep.
Like me, one friend has been purging his closets. We both began giving away “beautiful and long-beloved” household items, as he puts it, to young friends just starting out. In my case, I must confess, I was taken aback when my offer of a Wedgewood soup tureen was rejected. Janelle then gently reminded me that some New York City apartments have limited storage space.
But the biggest cluster of my friends’ responses concerned relationships with family and friends. One is holding weekly Zoom calls to stay current with family members. Another plays weekly mahjong games digitally with friends. In addition, she says, “My husband and I developed a ‘pod’ of friends and we would meet for outside dinners as well as hikes.”
My closet-purging friend is also preparing for the return of in-person gatherings by refining dinner party menus and mastering dishes that will require only 15 minutes of time away from his guests to get the meal onto the table.
Finally, one friend emphasized being kinder to people. She says, “I saw how stressed people alone were. It feels good to me to help others with that random act of kindness or a call on a weekend for a wellness check.”
I wonder if that might have been part of the motivation behind Mary’s decision not only to reconnect with people but to stay in touch with them. She has sustained many of those renewed friendships through calls, text messages, video calls, watch parties, other online activities, and even occasional in-person visits — “a meal, a visit to a museum, or a walk,” she reports.
So the question is, could being apart bring us closer and strengthen fraying friendship connections? In many cases, the answer may be yes.
This column first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.