Letter from Simon Kelner: Friendships that you can count on

  • @Simon_Kelner

I was intrigued by the results of a survey published yesterday, which claimed that, on average, adults have 26 close friends.

This figure is surely reflective of the Facebook age, when "friends" are often little more than contacts, or maybe people who once heard your name mentioned, or those who succumb to the personal equivalent of Amazon recommendations: "If you like the look of him, you might also like him." Because it seems to me – and I admit this may be an admission of my own unpopularity – that 26 is a very high number of people to count as close friends. I would go as far as to suggest that, for most adults, anything in double figures is pretty unusual.

It all depends, of course, on the definition of a close friend, and we would all have different interpretations of such. For instance, do you have to have regular contact with someone to maintain closeness? Most people would say that you do, but I have one or two friends to whom I rarely speak, but when we do – sometimes with more than a year's gap – it's as if we are still in the middle of a conversation, or one of us has just returned after visiting the loo.

This may be a blokey thing – the willingness not to chastise, or even notice, lack of contact – but I don't think I'm unusual in feeling that closeness in friendship indicates emotion rather than proximity. And the older one gets, the more people one meets, and the harder it is to devote time to each one individually.

A friend of mine told me about someone she met every morning while they were exercising their dogs. They would exchange pleasantries, and then one day she asked him whether he'd like to have coffee one morning. "I'm terribly sorry," he said, "but I'm afraid I have enough friends in my life. But give me your number and, if I find have a vacancy, I'll give you a call."

This is a true story and one you may find a little shocking – he did call some months later when one of his friends emigrated – but I think it's true that, at a certain age, we find the management of all our friendships increasingly difficult. I don't quite subscribe to John Cooper Clarke's adage – "A friend in need is a friend in debt" – but the idea of 26 close friends? It sounds too much like hard work. In any case, how could I possibly devote myself to meaningful human contact when I've got my 111 "friends" on Facebook and my 5,060 followers on Twitter to consider?