Almost ten years ago, I got an email unlike one I’d ever gotten before. It was from my friend Patrick who had written a personal missive about the recent ups and downs of his life. In a world where people were almost competitively busy, conversations often didn’t have the time or space they needed to ripen, so this letter was his attempt to share with friends thoughts and feelings yet unsaid. Composing and sending such a letter showed a precious and introspective reckoning that was simply unheard of because grades, internships, and effortless excellence seemed to triumph over one’s personal and emotional well-being. That letter flattered and inspired me, and so I stole Patrick’s idea.
First, I made a list of the people I thought I’d know forever as a free-flowing brainstorm in my journal. This immediately raised questions like, How many people should be on this list? Do I write down what I hope for or what I think is most likely? Because it’s so much easier to ask questions than answer them, I did the lazy thing and resigned myself to writing and posting reflections on my personal blog in 2011, ‘12, and ‘13.
Before I started my teaching residency in 2013, alumni warned that the demands of being a full-time grad student and full-time student teacher would stretch thin all other parts of my life. I thought, how bad could it be for a confident 22-year old who just finished an engineering degree? In a rare moment of wisdom, I trusted the advice and updated my list. Forty-one people were on this version, and I sent them a message asking for their patience in my year of trials ahead. My words also included an intentional declaration of our friendship. I reached out my hand and hoped that the gesture would be met and reciprocated.
To no one’s surprise, all of my relationships were strained that year. An email cannot slow time. Whether this is a good design for a teacher training program is a question for another day, but if I wanted to repair the damage done that year, I needed to act. The first year of teaching is also famously difficult, but at least I had earned a sense of self-determination. This time around, I wanted to be a little more rigorous and efficient. Someone must have thought about this before, so I looked around and found Dunbar’s number.
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar looked into primate brain size and social structures and extrapolated his data to claim that humans can only maintain “genuine social relationships” (link) with about 150 people. Digging a little deeper reveals that there’s strong evidence for a hierarchy of discrete group sizes: We’re very intimate with about 5 people, less so with about 15 (think of your ideal dinner party), still less intimate with 50, and then the most famous 150. There are further boundaries around 500 and 1500 as you continue to dilute the strength of interpersonal connections to the bare minimum of putting a name to a face.
As soon as I learned about this, I started to make lists of my 5, 15, and 50. I should make clear that these numbers are rules of thumb - my “50” floats between 55 and 65, for example. Being able to point to Dunbar’s research as the reason I couldn’t have everyone on my list made me feel better about making the hard decisions about whom to include. For these friends, I put their names, birthdays, and contact info into a spreadsheet. I added a column to keep track of the last time I connected with them and a column for how many weeks I was willing to go without such a connection. I set up conditional formatting to show me a yellow cell when I should call soon and red when I was overdue.
With my list made, the real work of actually trying to be a good friend to these people began. Quickly, I realized that the idea of love languages was very relevant. Some of my friends want a postcard or letter; some prefer an occasional one-hour video chat, and some would rather a bunch of quick, 10-minute conversations. Some friendships definitely suffer with distance, because they were built on spending quality time together. I check in more often with some friends who are at a transient point in their lives. And sometimes, it’s less about exchanging before-and-after snapshots than just connecting often enough to hear about the little moments on the order of days and evenings. What could I learn about you by hearing about what you did between getting home from work and going to bed yesterday?
For me, there’s usually a gulf between having a plan and executing it with fidelity, and I didn’t connect with everyone as often as I wanted. Rather than beating myself up over it, I sent my newer reflections to these friends as a way to apologize and make reparations for my failures. By narrowing the audience of these thoughts and feelings to an intimate circle, I felt a weight lifted and had the emotional space to delve more deeply into formative moments. Though I would write a reflection even if I wasn’t sending it out, I can’t help but keep my friends in mind and hope they enjoy my writing.
The hardest part of all of this for me has been getting over my feelings and doubts about a lack of reciprocation. I think I initiate at least 90% of my contact with friends. I send the first email, text, or facebook message that starts the scheduling dance. I add to my to-do list to follow up after a week in case I don’t hear back, swallowing my fear of appearing clingy and my pride at being independently happy, because I’ve heard enough times from enough friends that they appreciate it. When someone doesn’t respond, I just assume they were planning to get to it eventually and not that they suddenly hate me.
Towards the end of 2017, I composed my longest and most ambitious letter yet at fourteen pages, 6500 words, and 50 pictures. My purpose was to look back on my past two years of life and condense the most salient themes and moments into something that the people closest to me might enjoy reading. It was also meant to be a symbolic offering: a chance for me to say, “Hey, I care about you, and I’m pretty sure you care about me, so I want to open up my past two years to you in case we haven’t talked about these things that are important to me.”
The responses to my letter have taught me a lot about modern friendships, and that’s largely why I wanted to write this public essay. I sent the personal digest to a mix of friends and family, about 70 in total. The biggest stress of clicking the Send button was the feeling that I was forgetting someone, because I have such incomplete information about who cares and who might want to read it. If you want to, just send me a quick text or email and I’m happy to share.
There was an initial group of responses, perhaps from the Inbox Zero crowd, who wrote me immediately with kind words about their impressions. Knowing that friends enjoyed what I wrote was deeply satisfying as a writer. Over the next week, a trickle of people sent longer responses sharing deeper connections. In all, I got emails or texts back from about 25 people. A handful of people have also talked with me about the letter over a walk, coffee date, or video chat. Generously, you could say that brings it to 35 total. Of the other 35, I have no idea if they even opened the email. Should I make a condensed version for them next time? Do they still check this email address? Are they tired of me and my feelings? Is there a mostly-complete, heartfelt reply gathering digital dust in their drafts folder? Will they get around to replying the next time they have some free time, which for some people might be when their kids leave for college in 15 years?
It’s the ambiguity that’s hard for me. As an engineering-minded teacher, I crave and deeply value feedback, but as an empathetic human, I’m not going to send out investigative surveys to people who haven’t responded yet. So, I’m left to wonder what happened. At this point, it’s unlikely I’ll find out, and that’s disappointing but ultimately okay. I’m sure I’ve let emails slip by unrequited. Meaning well, I’ve read a message from a friend, thought it deserved my undivided attention at a later date, and clicked Mark as unread, only for it to languish unloved, waiting for a day that never comes.
Being on this end of a personal letter and going through the emotional ups and downs has informed my philosophy of communication:
Sooner is better than later, and later is better than never.
Something is better than nothing.
It’s nothing groundbreaking, and of course, the value is in the actual execution of this philosophy, and that comes back to bigger questions of the important and the urgent. When I talk to friends, we all agree that friendships are important to us, but most of the time they don’t feel urgent, because the richness and value of friendship is on the order of years, not days.
If you don’t water a plant for one day, it’ll be fine. An orchid might last weeks; a cactus can go months. But at some point, without water, these plants will die. No nursery would suggest waiting for the leaves to wither before watering, so why do we risk that with our friends? As we all navigate the challenging landscape of building and nurturing friendships as adults, may we try to be maintainers instead of emergency responders. May we stay connected in the good times and the bad. May we nourish a lush forest of relationships to grow old with.