The Pandemic Shrank Our Social Circles. Let’s Keep It That Way.

William Rawlins, a professor emeritus of interpersonal communication at Ohio University, has interviewed people from age 4 to 100 about friendship and discovered that people have similar expectations when it comes to their friends: We want those who are there for us, who listen without judgment and understand what we’re going through. They may not agree with us, but they get us.

“People remain friends to the extent they are fulfilling each other’s expectation of the relationship across the life span and, I would say, across Covid,” Dr. Rawlins said. “We need to cross-examine ourselves: Who have we kept in touch with during the pandemic? Who have you taken a risk at a certain point to see because they mean that much to you?”

Friends don’t just happen. You have to put in the effort. And part of that is realizing who makes you feel comfortable and connected and who makes you feel pinched and awkward like those stiletto heels or business suits you wore before the pandemic and now wonder how you stood it.

While some are predicting a period of promiscuity and partying akin to the Roaring Twenties after the 1918 influenza pandemic, there’s reason to believe history may not repeat itself. Ours has been an era defined by divisiveness, narcissism, frantic busyness and an epidemic of loneliness. The social isolation imposed by Covid-19 has exposed the shortcomings of individualism, incessant striving, superficiality and can’t-talk-now-text-me-later lifestyles.

Many, like Ms. Ernst, have a guilty reluctance about things returning to the way things were. “It sounds terrible, but I’ve liked the peace that comes with not having to run around,” she said. “I’ve been able to have fewer and deeper friendships, and I want to hold on to that.”

Just as many who lived through the Great Depression continued to scrimp and save even when living in relative abundance, so too might those who survive the Covid pandemic continue to cultivate and conserve close relationships when it’s safe to once again swim in the sea of humanity.

As for Dr. Cohen, he said he hasn’t looked at his social network much since he created it. “I have a memory for who is on it,” he said. “I realize who I haven’t talked to.” If anything good comes from the coronavirus pandemic, it might be that we keep our friends in mind.

Kate Murphy is the author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.”

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