Monday 27 July 2020

'Doing friendship' at a distance

Rachel Benchekroun is a PhD candidate at UCL’s Institute of Education, where she is exploring the role of social networks in relation to belonging and social support for mothers with insecure immigration status in London. She is currently undertaking a separate small-scale study looking at the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on public sector professionals’ social and support networks and wellbeing. This blogpost draws on early findings from this study in relation to friendship practices.

‘Friends are there for each other – they provide support in times of need and crisis. You can bounce ideas off each other, hang out and have fun. That’s what’s really missing at the moment.’ (Marie)

Friendships are valued as a form of exchanging social support – information, resources and mutual confiding – and for the enjoyment of taking part in activities together, sharing humour and having fun. These diverse ways of ‘doing friendship’ contribute to our sense of self and belonging.

Whilst friendships are ‘chosen’ and voluntary in nature, they are patterned by social location and context (Allan and Adams 2006). Covid-19 and lockdown have largely confined us to our homes, transforming the spaces in which friendship practices can take place. How – and how effectively – can we ‘do friendship’ at a distance?

At the end of April, I began a small-scale qualitative study with public sector professionals living in London to explore how lockdown is affecting family, friendship and wider relationship practices, and how these are shaping individuals’ sense of self and wellbeing in this time of intense change and pressure. 11 participants, from fields including education, health, social care and early childhood services, have been keeping diaries and have engaged in regular reflective conversations with me. Here, I share some findings on changes to friendship practices.

Social support from a distance

In the early weeks of lockdown, participants reported increases in instant messaging (checking in, sharing videos and memes) and a surge in video calling, indicating efforts to share social support virtually. These forms of communication offer alternative ways of connecting with local friends, more frequent contact with those who live at a distance, and a rekindling of friendships in need of nurturing. Even the traditional phone call seems to have enjoyed a resurgence. Participants also found ways to share more physical micro acts of care, from sending cards to distant friends, to baking cakes for a neighbour, and popping round to a local friend to take a birthday gift – and having a chat from two metres.

‘Cosy cardigans’

My research suggests that old friendships are resilient to the constraints of lockdown. Career-related mobility has meant that ‘old’ friends are often geographically distant, so meeting up is typically infrequent. Sean described his closest friendships as ‘quite low maintenance’, commenting ‘we’ll just slip into a relationship like a cosy cardigan’.

For some, in fact, engaging with old-but-distant friends has become more frequent, with Covid-19 and lockdown precipitating contact, and online video platforms – combined with the flexibility of working from home – reducing the barriers to socialising usually posed by distance, childcare needs or living in different time zones. 


Shared activities

Participants’ diaries and their reflections in dialogue suggest that local friends, work colleagues and co-members of wider groups tend to play a more significant role in our everyday practices. With lockdown confining most people to home for all or most of the time, friendship practices at the local level seem to have been affected the most.

For many participants, ‘doing friendship’ means engaging in activities together – from organized sporting, creative, cultural or faith-related activities, to going for walks or to the pub. Doing activities together is significant not only because of the physical and mental health benefits of the activity itself, but the sociability of doing it with friends. Facing lockdown, many such activities have shifted online: friends are meeting up for yoga classes, book clubs, quizzes, church services and prayer groups via Zoom, YouTube or What’s App; members of running clubs have paired up with ‘running buddies’ and friends are going on virtual cultural tours of cities. Meeting up for a drink has been replaced by online coffee breaks or evening get-togethers with a bottle of wine on the sofa. Friends are learning to crochet and bake bread together in virtual sessions, taking advantage of the greater flexibility of working from home.

Limitations of doing friendship online

Whilst online technology has been broadly embraced as a means of reaching out to friends since the start of lockdown, participants in the study also identified challenges of ‘doing friendship’ from a distance. As the weeks have gone by, the novelty of regular get-togethers via Zoom was beginning to lose its appeal for some. Maintaining the motivation to go running or cycling without friends being physically present has proved tricky at times. The intensity and immobility of conversations in two dimensions and the struggles to read body language have made communication more effortful and less natural.

Most participants had shifted to working from home since lockdown; for many, spending whole days at home in online meetings could be draining. The need for a change of scene and distance from the screen was not met by socialising online. There was concern that not responding rapidly to a message from a friend who knows you are at home could be interpreted as being unsupportive. Moreover, trying to decipher what kind of support a friend wants from you via a What’s App message could be tricky. As Hannah commented, ‘I’m so tired of every single interaction being via technology.’

Missing the texture of the everyday

For participants, as public sector professionals, in-person interactions with local friends and colleagues constituted the texture of day-to-day life before lockdown, and were therefore often the most missed now they were working from home. There was a widespread sadness about the lack of banter with colleagues. Participants missed the spontaneous chats in the kitchen or the opportunity to pop into the office next door to run an idea past a colleague. As Hannah remarked, ‘They might not be the deepest friendships, but they definitely provide the greatest texture to life - and life is rather bland right now!’ Margot yearned for ‘the jokes – the silly stuff you say and people laugh’, and Joy hankered for ‘socialising with colleagues, teaching the kids, the banter… the non-verbal communication.’

This may be acutely felt by individuals living alone. As Sarah observed:

If you live with someone you can have that level of casual, non-intense company. If you’re on your own […] there’s no background company. […] In a way, if you live on your own, work is the place where you have that background company.

The physical contact of day-to-day interactions is often missed too, particularly for those who see themselves as being ‘tactile’ or ‘a hugger’. Showing affection or communicating emotions through physical gestures is often self-affirming. Not being able to talk in person or communicate with a hug can be felt deeply, affecting individuals’ sense of self.

When I receive a hug, I feel loved, I feel welcomed, I feel part of something, I belong, I feel significant. If it wasn’t for [my daughter] I think I’d feel really isolated. When I couldn’t hug [my best friend], I felt real disappointment – I felt that something was missing. Saying goodbye [without a hug] feels incomplete. It’s like a full stop! (Joy)

The prospect of physical distancing being a reality for months to come was a sobering thought for some. Sean missed seeing people in three dimensions, and felt ‘disconsolate’ about the possibility of an ‘end to physicality’.

Emotional regulation

Day-to-day in-person interactions – the everyday conviviality of spaces of work and leisure – are often crucial in regulating emotions, helping to defuse worries or negative feelings by offering an alternative perspective or simply through distraction. Working from home, or being furloughed, disrupts these micro interactions. This may be experienced as the flattening of positive emotions and the heightening of negative ones. For many participants, not being able to participate in activities in person with friends can affect wellbeing, especially when work may not be providing the structure or sense of purpose that it previously did.

Looking forward

My research is revealing the extent to which individuals are resourceful and creative and are finding ways of ‘doing friendship’ from a distance in a ‘flattened’ world. But it is vital to recognise the significance of the physicality and texture of everyday interactions, and the potential impact of the temporary loss of these. As we look ahead to the prospect of long-term physical distancing in our everyday lives, we need to consider the challenges of being physically isolated from friends and colleagues, and to find ways to protect subjective wellbeing.

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