Thing is... you can actually have too many friends

I recently met a wonderful woman called Nora. Actually, we’ve seen each other many times. We live in smallish community and first exchanged pleasantries at the pool, then again at a local event. I bumped into her at the beach and learned we have grandkids around the same age.

Finally, after running into each other at the Sunday market, we agreed it was long overdue time for us to sit down together and have a coffee. We had a really pleasant time and an instant connection – we have the same values, share many interests, are on the same healthy eating path and it turns out we have a number of friends in common. But we didn’t bother exchanging phone numbers.

The truth is, I simply don’t have space in my life for another friend. I realise how ridiculously lucky this makes me, and hope it doesn’t make me sound callous. But it’s true – my dance card is full, so to speak.

Fortunately, I sensed Nora was in the same position as me and, judging by her rich and interesting life, she has no need for another friend either.

I mused on this for a while, wondering whether I was a terrible person. Then I discovered something called the “Dunbar number” that put mind at ease.

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Dr Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford.

From his early work studying the brains and social circles of primates, Dr Dunbar theorised that the size of a human’s social network is limited by the size of a certain part of the human brain called the neocortex, a critical site for higher brain functions.

He found that, all over the world, humans had a limited capacity for friendships. At the outer limits, a person’s social circle usually reaches its limit somewhere between 100 and 200 people. Interestingly, this is the same size as the average neolithic village.

If you were having a party to celebrate a huge milestone or hosting your own wake like this gentleman, these are all the people –friends and family – that you would invite.

From there, the circles of friendship shrink roughly by the rule of three. Say you have 150 casual friends in your life, within that there are then 50 or so close friends you’d invite to lunch, 15 intimate friends you’d turn to for help or sympathy when you need it and five you’d trust with anything (usually close family and partners).

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To me, these numbers sound about right. My mother taught me that if you can count your close friends on one hand you’re doing well. The thing is, you can actually have too many friends, and when that happens, you’re likely not doing anyone any favours.

A long time ago, I accumulated friends willy-nilly and my outer circle well exceeded the limits of what you can maintain.

The thing is, I really liked Nora and enjoyed her company. Who knows, perhaps we will maintain our casual acquaintance until we become available to each other, for part of the Dunbar theory is that as one person moves out of your circle, another tends to move in, and over your life people will weave in and out of your life, as we all know too well.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

I have come to realise that, just as you can’t visit must-see destination in the world, you can’t be friends with everyone. And I’m okay with that.

Have you ever had to turn a friendship down? Does the “Dunbar number” sound right to you?