One of the most interesting phrases I come across whenever I talk with city-dwelling professionals my own age is “work friends.” The qualifier is there presumably because our coworkers, the people with whom many of us spend the majority of our time, are just interchangeable units — warm bodies who are good for a joke in front of the Keurig or a few drinks at the monthly office happy hour, but not the kind of people who help you move into your new apartment or know who your parents are. A bizarre process of auto-sorting seems to preclude the possibility of these relationships becoming anything else. No wonder we pretend pets are people.

But it would be a mistake to pretend that a phenomenon as pervasive as this one is restricted to unmarried urbanites. There cannot be many Americans lonelier in their way than, for example, stay-at-home mothers in rural and suburban America. Here too we see euphemisms. My wife talks about “mom friends,” random women she and others like her meet at chance encounters in parks or libraries or coffee shops — any place where women might go with their children during the day, clinging to one another for sympathy, encouragement, advice, a hug, all the things sisters and mothers-in-law and neighbors provided in a bygone era of community. But at least parents and children have one another at home.