Rethinking friendship

Jocelyn Noveck

AP – A single mother hunkering down at home with a teenage daughter, Sharon Litwin sees her friends, like most people these days, only virtually. Even so, they’ve been a crucial lifeline.

“Sometimes I just need to have a conversation with adults,” she said. “And sometimes I just need to cry, which I really don’t want to do in front of my daughter.” Two of Litwin’s friends, especially, have become valued sounding boards in daily calls she coordinates with her walks outside.

But then there are friends she’s tried to check on – good friends – who haven’t answered. She doesn’t know what that means. Are they struggling? Are they or a loved one sick? Or are they afraid she is sick or struggling and don’t want to add to her stress? “I don’t know what the message is,” said Litwin, 45, of Teaneck, New Jersey. “I just worry about everybody.”

As the world has changed in overwhelming ways since the coronavirus era took hold, the complicated ripple effects have been well documented in terms of family life, but less so with friendships. Yet these relationships, too, were key to our previous lives. And they, too, are complicated – especially now that virtually all communication is, well, virtual.

The challenges can be as simple as learning how to navigate a relationship via FaceTime (am I calling too much, or too little?) or as deep as re-evaluating who one’s best friends are, and what one needs or expects of them.

Sharon Litwin types on her laptop at her home in Teaneck, New Jersey. PHOTOS: AP
Tracy Wakeford and her daughter Emilia, two, at their home in Rockport, Maine
Litwin, a single mother hunkering down at home with a teenage daughter, sees her friends, like most people these days, only virtually

There have been surprises both welcome and not.

There’s the friend you haven’t seen in months who pops up to offer a much-needed item – a thermometer for your kid, a load of groceries when you can’t get out. There’s the neighbour three floors up whom you hardly knew before, who reaches out to say “I’m here if you need me.” There’s that person you rarely got to see in normal times, but suddenly has become a soothing voice helping you navigate the unknown.

Then there’s the friend who seems callous or focussed on trivial matters – someone you’d rather just not be speaking to right now.

Tracy Wakeford knows she’s among the lucky. She’s sheltering in her Rockport, Maine house with a screened porch where her young daughters can play. Still, she finds it frustrating to see millennial friends posting about entertainment options being limited.

“I want to kill all my single friends or friends with no kids who are ‘bored’ and don’t know what to watch on Netflix,” Wakeford, 44, recently posted on Facebook.

“My toddler is being very clingy. We have no daycare and we’re not leaving the house,” explained Wakeford, whose daughters are eight and two, in an interview. Her answer to those friends: “I don’t want to hear about Netflix, and I don’t want to hear about how you’re macrameing a blanket.”

Wakeford tried not to judge, but admitted to “snoozing” friends on Facebook whose posts sound like they’re on a mini-vacation. “Are people really listening to other people and the struggles they’re going through?”

Family therapist Catherine Lewis said communication can be fraught when friends are expe-riencing the pandemic differently. Frontline workers, or simply those who must stay in essential jobs, don’t have the freedom to stay home. It’s also harder for some to be cooped up in an urban setting than a suburban house. “It’s a luxury to be bored,” Lewis said.

Melba Nicholson Sullivan, a clinical community psychologist in New York, said the huge stress of the moment can shine a light on temperament differences that were manageable in easier times. “People are now having to pick and choose what works in a friendship, and what’s maybe no longer a good fit.”

For many, virtual communication has been a blessing. Recently, Bruce Leiserowitz, a Los Angeles lawyer, sent one of those “checking in” e-mails to an old friend, someone he hadn’t spoken to in months. Instantly he received an e-mail from that very friend: “Checking in.”

He assumed his own e-mail was bouncing back. But no: The two had reached out at exactly the same moment. They picked up the phone for a 30-minute catch-up.

Leiserowitz has made a point to reach out to friends, offering help. Not everyone has done the same for him. “Maybe some people haven’t been as communicative as I’d have liked, but I have to understand they’ve got their own situations to deal with,” he said.

For Jenny Englander, Zoom socialising is frustrating; she’s withdrawn for now. “I used to be super extroverted,” said the mother of four, who recently posted about it on a parenting site. “Now I rarely talk to friends.” It’s not their fault, but such communication “feels shallow”.

In New York, writing coach Cathy Altman avoids virtual group meetings, favouring old-school e-mails, one friend at a time. That can have pitfalls, too; a friend recently shared texts documenting a fight with a partner. “Next time,” Altman quipped, “call your therapist.”

The disorientation many feel trying to navigate virtual friendships is hardly limited to adults. One recent evening, Sam Junnarkar, a fifth-grader in Westchester County, New York, connected with friends over Zoom to plan a joint movie night. The experience turned out to be fun. But Sam, 10, professed a longing for his in-person, pre-pandemic play dates. “I can talk to my friends online, but it’s not the same,” he said. “It feels different. I can only see their faces, and sometimes the Internet goes down.”

Things feel different, too, for Kathe Mazur, a Los Angeles actress and audiobook narrator, but it’s not her friendships that seem altered. It’s the communication with casual colleagues, which somehow, on virtual channels, feels unexpectedly profound.

The usual introductory small talk, Mazur says, feels deeper, more vulnerable and more personal, with substantive questions about how people are coping. People seek advice. And they ask, “How’re you doing?” – the difference being that now, they really want to know.

“There’s a sense that every-one has permission to really com-municate,” Mazur said. “This would never have happened before.”