When it comes to friends, it's quality that counts

That killer statistic of 14 close friends had me leafing through the address book with rising desperation
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It has been a time for counting, for edgy emotional assessments. The Government's annual British Social Attitudes survey has been published and it has some alarming news on the subject of friendship.

It has been a time for counting, for edgy emotional assessments. The Government's annual British Social Attitudes survey has been published and it has some alarming news on the subject of friendship.

The average Briton, it seems, has no less than 14 close friends. Eighty per cent of those interviewed were able to name, without any difficulty, their best friend and most of them claimed to meet up with this special pal at least once a week. More than ever before, we are likely to invite friends around for dinner or go out with them to a pub or club. Money helps on the mateship front, apparently – if you earn more than £35,000 a year, you are 25 per cent more likely to have at least 10 close friends than someone earning less than £12,000.

All this suggests that the British reputation for emotional reserve is entirely unjustified, according to Alison Park of the National Centre for Social Research, who co-ordinated the project. "One of the traditional stereotypes has been that we are rather inward-looking and that we are not as sociable as other people," she says. "This work suggests that, in Britain, friends play a very important role in people's lives."

Feeling inadequate? I am. That killer statistic of 14 close friends as a national average has had me leafing with a rising sense of desperation through my address book. No one likes to be thought dysfunctional when it comes to the business of spreading warmth and intimacy around. In the matter of friends, most of us are still in the playground, assailed by fears that we are the school's Molly Mateless. That nervous, hopeful childhood question – "Can I be your friend?" – never quite leaves us.

Until the survey was published, I had assumed that the trend was in the opposite direction, that previous generations were better at keeping friends than we are. Helping my mother sort through letters written to her following the death of my father a few weeks ago, I was struck not only by the number of friends he had but by the extraordinary and genuine affection of many of the letters. Few of my contemporaries, it seemed to me, could compete with that sort of network of friendship.

One excuse might be that, professionally and personally, our lives are more changeable and shambolic than those of our parents. With every change of circumstance, whether it be the end of a relationship or a change of career, friends drift away, never to be heard from again. It is sometimes startling to discover that what you had assumed was a close friendship was, in fact, something else – a function of your situation, an attachment not to you so much as to the unit, family or firm, to which you belonged. Once you are on your own, it disintegrates.

But perhaps it is those of us who conform to the outdated stereotype – "rather inward-looking and not as sociable as other people" – who are now in a small minority. Someone who served in my father's regiment during his national-service years told me casually, as if it were a truism hardly worth mentioning, that establishing friends for life was one of the most important aspects of attending university or serving in the forces.

How does one manage that friend for life thing? Of the small number of university friends (microscopic, to be honest) with whom I have stayed in touch, some have grown duller with age while others have been improved by the various knocks that life has given them. Although it is quite nice to see them now and then, the friendship we once had has been replaced by something more conventionally social. The idea that I would confide in them, or expect them to cry on my shoulder because we once were close, has become ludicrous.

Deconstructing the British Social Attitudes Survey, Professor Roy Pahl of the Institute for Social and Economic Research, who is described as "a leading expert on friendship", has helpfully broken down these relationships into sub-categories. Some people are "firefighter friends", available to be called out at times of emotional flare-up. Others are party-going "Champagne friends", old-time buddies are called "fossil friends", and then there are the self-explanatory "heartsink friends".

It is a reassuring gloss on what otherwise would have been a worrying report. Not only is my circle of close friends woefully short of the average but I am one of the 17 per cent of men so sad they cannot even nominate a best friend, part of the male majority who enjoy what is damningly described as "relatively shallow relationships with a large number of people". On the other hand, I have lost Professor Pahl's Champagne, fossil and firefighter friends, or they have lost me, and I have managed to freeze out those poor old heartsinkers.

What is left is a small group which may be pitifully small in comparison to the average, but it is an élite, high-quality squad. It may be dysfunctional, but it suits me just fine.