Everyday Sociology Blog: Our Social Caravan

Everyday Sociology Blog: Our Social Caravan
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Todd Schoepflin

Whenever I teach a social psychology course, I like to show students excerpts from Saturated Self by Kenneth Gergen. As described in the book, we live in a time where we can meet people from anywhere in the world, and these relationships can be maintained thanks to travel opportunities and technology. These passages can apply to both romantic relationships and friendships, but my post focuses on friendships:

A century ago, social relations were mostly limited to easy walking distance. Most of them were carried out personally, in small communities: family, neighbors, towns. Yes, the horse and cart allowed for longer journeys, but even a thirty-mile journey could take an entire day. The railway could run at one speed, but cost and availability limited such journeys. If a person were to leave the community, the relationship would most likely end. From birth to death, one can count on a social environment of relatively uniform texture. Words, faces, gestures, and possibilities were relatively consistent, coherent, and slowly changing (p. 61, emphasis mine).

In the past, longer time and distance between individuals usually meant losses. When someone moved away, the relationship ended. Long-distance visits were tiring and letters traveled slowly. Thus, as they aged, many active participants disappeared from life. Today, time and distance are no longer such a serious threat to relationships. Intimacy can be maintained across thousands of miles by frequent telephone calls punctuated by occasional visits (p. 62).

“The future is opening,” wrote Gergen,the number of friendships is expanding like never before” (p. 63).

First edition Saturated Self was published in 1991, when rotary phones and payphones were still in use, before the general public had access to cell phones and high-speed Internet, and before we had any idea about social media, Facebook friends, or FaceTime. We used to worry about the cost of long distance phone calls. Newer technologies have made it even easier to stay in touch with people we’ve met at various points in our lives.

I am blessed to have many friends from different stages of life: childhood, high school, college, graduate school, and my job as a college professor, which has given me the opportunity to make friends with people from all over the country and from other countries, including China and Turkey.

I am friends with people from my wife’s workplace and have made friends through my children’s sports. I run into my life partner Kevin on Saturdays because our kids play in the same basketball league (our parents were featured in a story about the longevity of their friendship).

On Sundays, I text my friend Cicero, a former colleague now at Marshall University, about our shared interest in the NFL. This summer I’m going to play in an over 50 rugby tournament. I’ll hang out with people I met thirty years ago in college. I also maintain friendships with a group of guys I played rugby with when I was in grad school.

We group text throughout the year and have an annual get together at one of our homes with our families. Texting has really helped me keep in touch with my friends. I may only have lunch once a year with my high school buddies, Dom and Guy, but we text regularly (even if, unfortunately, we’ve had a chance to tell each other lately when someone from our high school died).

As I think about my friendships, I think of a recent article The New York Times. “Why is it so hard for men to find close friends?” which cites survey data showing that only 48% of men are satisfied with the size of their friendship group, while 15% say they have no close friends at all.

One proposed explanation is that many men are unwilling to be open and emotionally vulnerable with each other. Psychologist Fred Rabinowitz has said, “If you look at little boys, they’re quite open and affectionate with each other, and then something happens. I have to say that my friends and I are comfortable expressing our feelings. Just last week my friends texted me “I love you!” and “Love and miss your brother!” My friend John says “I love you” at the end of our phone conversation. I try to convey to my friends that I appreciate them, and I wrote a short story celebrating a close friendship.

I want to share a cool story about a special group of friends. One day my wife came home from work and said her co-worker Amy was wearing a Core 4 sweater. Amy kindly shared with me the information to include in this post.

4 coreShe and her friends (Tracey, Tracy and Kim) met in elementary school in 1974 and have been friends ever since, living within a few miles of each other. They talk often, text and take a trip every year. They even got Core 4 tattoos on their trip the year they all turned 50. When I asked how the name Core 4 came about, she said:

Over the years we’ve had other elementary/high school friends come on our trips and hang out with us, but no matter who came or left the group, the four of us always remained intact and referred to us as the Core 4.

One of their favorite traditions is the annual Christmas dinner they host with their mothers and daughters. “We’re all 13 together, and our mothers and daughters are close to each other, too,” Amy explained. When I asked Amy what is important to her about this friendship group and what these friends mean to her, she said, “We mean the world to each other and we never take our friendship for granted. We’ve been there for each other through high school, college, sports, breakups, deaths, marriages, divorces, babies, new jobs, and challenges and triumphs with kids. We consider ourselves a family.”

I want to include one more serving from Saturated Self:

In fact, as you go through life, the pool of relevant characters keeps expanding. For some, this means an ever-increasing sense of stress: “How can we make friends with them?” We don’t even have time for the friends we already have!’ For others, it’s a sense of comfort, and the social caravan we travel through life is always full (p. 62).

It’s true that keeping in touch with a large group of people can be difficult, but in the end, friends bring us a lot of comfort and joy. To quote Kahlil Gibran: “And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures. Because in the dew of small things, the heart finds morning and revives.”

Are you happy with the number of friends you have? In what ways do you keep in touch with your friends? How many close friends do you have? And how do you think we should define “close friend”?

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