Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Are you popular enough?

Latest research contends that we need about 18 friends to be balanced and content

By Barbara Ellen  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Isn't that rather a lot? If you take work and occasional exchanges with supermarket cashiers out of the equation, I'm not sure I even know 18 people. If I died tomorrow they'd have to drag road sweepers into the church to make up the numbers.

Not content with making some of us feel like the original "Billy No-Mates," the study plunged on: it seems most friendship networks are relative-dependent, profession-dependent or partner-focused. They seem to have missed out people like me who, post-children, sustain friendships the old-fashioned way: drifting about chaotically, all but drowning in the stuff of life, occasionally erupting in a flurry of needy, over-eager phone calls to "catch up". However, I don't seem to be the only one screwing this platonic thing up. The study also omitted to mention the most virulent form of friendship network of our era -- the one that gets all its best ideas from television.

It seems to me that over the years, friendship has become the new sex. As in, everybody is pretending to get a lot more of it than they actually do, and to be much better at it than they actually are. For this strange quasi-competitive view of friendship we must blame the sitcom, Friends. Back in the Nineties, Friends gave everybody a strong feeling of social dissatisfaction that never quite went away.

People would look at their lives and think: where are my young, attractive, supportive, wise-cracking friends? Why are my own friends rubbish? To a certain extent, the same thing happened with Sex and the City -- for a while, you couldn't eat a meal in a restaurant without having to put up with tables of bawdy women wearing underwear as outerwear, screaming too much information at each other about their sex lives. (Don't deny it, we all know who we are.)

However, with Friends there was a sea-change in what people expected of each other. They started looking at their own friends, their real friends, and feeling short-changed. Why weren't they as funny as Chandler, as sensitive as Ross, as tidy as Monica, as kooky as Phoebe? Why didn't they hang out in coffee bars and amusingly work out their problems together. Within 30 minutes. Every week.

Ordinary

It was as if on a deep subconscious level real life wasn't enough -- we genuinely expected the ordinary people around us to talk and behave as if they had teams of talented scriptwriters working around the clock on witty one-liners and storylines. In short, a whole sub-section of Britain became slightly deranged: they wanted sitcom lives and sitcom friends, not grotty real ones, who were always forgetting their wallets, or got shirty when they lost at pool. However, while Friends was the first sitcom to make British society react like this (no one ever watched Porridge and wanted to go to prison), it also seems to have been the last.

Does it perhaps say something that Friends has been replaced in the nation's affections by the disaster series, Lost? Lost is all about having no choice but to stick with a bunch of dodgy people whether you like it or not. Which when you think about it is more realistic about the nature of modern human interaction. For aren't most of us forced into proximity with each other by circumstances rather than choice? Moreover, the protagonists in Lost are continually threatened, constantly whingeing and badly dressed. Is any of this sounding familiar? Give or take the odd plane crash, it certainly says something to me about my life.

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