CW: discussion of the ideas that friends’ body weights are an influence on a person and that having friends with higher body weights is less desirable (as mentioned by the NY Times), alongside criticism of those ideas.
The New York Times saw fit to print an article this week on using this phase of the pandemic to “rearrange your ‘friendscape’”, which in essence means a combo of culling, currying favor with, and ruthlessly categorizing your friends into the foreground, middle ground, and background of your life.
The idea of pandemic housecleaning isn’t new. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten rid of unwanted books, DVDs, CDs, and ancient clothing over the past 14 months. I’ve even moved furniture around, reshuffled the art on my walls, and have freshened up with a few new purchases.
It never occurred to me to toss out, recycle to send to Goodwill any of my friends.
Of course not! Who would think this was a good idea? Well, a bunch of social scientists that the NY Times talked to did. Here are some of their thoughts:
Psychologists, sociologists and evolutionary anthropologists say it behooves us to take a more curatorial approach when it comes to our friends because who you hang out with determines who you are.
Hmmm. Who you are? You mean, I am destined to become exactly like my friends, including taking on their traits? This article seems to say yes:
Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same. The reverse is also true: You will be more studious, kind and enterprising if you consort with studious, kind and enterprising people. That is not to say that you should abandon friends when they are having a hard time. But it’s a good idea to be mindful of who you are spending the majority of your time with — whether on- or off-line — because your friends’ prevailing moods, values and behaviors are likely to become your own.
What’s really going on here? For more than a decade, there have been studies looking at social networks and how to identify patterns in common among social groups. Nicholas Christakis and lots of others, through this social network analysis, argue that some traits like body weight, psychological states, and some eating and drinking habits are “socially contagious”, which means they spread through social connections. I wrote about this a decade ago with my friend Norah. Our views have shifted since then, I might add. The details are complicated and not obvious or always intuitive. For instance, same-sex mutual friend groups are more mutually influential than domestic partner or married partner groups.
How these traits spread is outside the purview of social network analysis. Other social scientists have posited views about localized behavioral norms (like eating, drinking and drug use practices), but these views are speculative, not predictive or diagnostic or useful for dispensing friendship triage advice.
In sum, though:
It’s not true that my being fat “helps make you fat” if we are mutual friends.
Being fat is a thing that some people are and some people aren’t. Talking about fatness as social contagion worry for people who are looking to assess their friendships is ill-considered and mean-spirited and not supported by evidence.
It’s also fat-phobic in the extreme, which makes it double-mean-spirited.
Ditto for depression. The last thing someone with depression needs is her friends avoiding or dumping her out of fear that they will catch it. That is wrong on all the levels. Like, even this level of wrong:
There’s more blah-blah about friendships in the article, but nothing that is a) worth mentioning; or b) offsets the horribleness of the above-mentioned messages.
So, what am I doing about my friendships as we emerge, many of us vaccinated?
- I’m expressing my love and gratitude to those with whom I shared a supportive/supported network;
- I’m reconnecting with those I lost touch with, or who lost touch with me, for reasons of PANDEMIC, y’all!
- I’m enjoying some new connections made over the past year courtesy of zoom and social media;
- I’m trying to pace myself in those activities of reconnection, and be understanding of those who are in a different stage of connection or reconnection or disconnection.
Life is hard, y’all. Life has been extra hard. Geez Louise– how about let’s just be friends with our friends as best we can? That’s what I have to say to the New York Times.
Readers, did you see this article? Where are you with respect to connecting and reconnecting with friends these days? I’d love to hear from you.