The pandemic has erased entire categories of friendship

During the past year, it’s often felt like the pandemic has come for all but the closest of my close ties. There are people on the outer periphery of my life for whom the concept of “keeping up” makes little sense, but there are also lots of friends and acquaintances—people I could theoretically hang out with outdoors or see on videochat, but with whom those tools just don’t feel right. In my life, this perception seems to be largely mutual—I am not turning down invites from these folks for Zoom catch-ups and walks in the park. Instead, our affection for each other is in a period of suspended animation, alongside indoor dining and international travel. Sometimes we respond to each other’s Instagram Stories.

None of the experts I spoke with had a good term for this kind of middle ground—the weaker points of Granovetter’s proposed inner circle and the strongest of the weak ties—except for the general one. “Friend is a very promiscuous word,” William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University who studies friendship, told me. “Do we have a word for this array of friends that aren’t our close friends? I’m not sure we do, and I’m not sure we should.”

The extent to which individuals are separated from their moderate and weak ties during the pandemic varies by their location, employment, and willingness to put themselves and others at risk. But even in places where it’s possible to work out in gyms and eat inside restaurants, far fewer people are taking part in these activities, changing the social experience for both patrons and employees. And even if your job requires you to come in to work, you and your colleagues are likely adhering to some kind of protocol intended to reduce interaction. Masks, though necessary, mean you can’t tell when people smile at you.