“Who’s with me?” The truth about friends

photo of people holding each other s hands

You probably heard the question “Who’s with me?” in more movies than you care to count (though I challenge you to name one!). There’ll be like one guy asking this question of his band of brothers, just before they head off for new adventures.

Or something like that.

One year ago, I decided to give this question my own spin, and wrote about a social experiment I undertook, lasting approximately 18 months (Or maybe I should call it the anti-social experiment!).

You see, a few months before 2020 began, I stopped reaching out to my usual network of friends. I wanted to sit back, wait, and see who will begin to notice my “absence” and reach back to find out how I was doing.

I also took an indefinite break from social media, with zero postings on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter (safe for my blog post notifications in the latter). So if anyone wanted to know how I was doing, those platforms would yield practically nothing after 2019.

Today, I’m ready to reveal my findings.

“Ta-dah!” (Drum rolls please)….

tilt shift photo of acoustic drum set
Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

Here’s what I found.

In total, 18 people initiated contact with me between December 2019 and September 2020. Some of them were people I regularly meet; some, once a year or longer. Others were surprise “visits” from my distant past.

In keeping with the intent of the experiment, I kept silent and didn’t reply.

I never heard from 12 of them again.

As for the remaining six, I heard again from each of them between one and eight months after their first attempt to reach me. This time, I waited between a day and a week to respond, depending on whether they had specific questions, or just the usual “Hi, how are you?“.

Of the six, only five replied to my response to talk further or arrange a meet-up, which I obliged without delay.

It seems in this world, I have only five firm friends. And, as it turned out, every single one of them was a female!

Dunbar’s Number

Photo by Ferran Feixas on Unsplash

You may have heard of Dunbar’s Number. British anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar conducted research where he identified 150 as the largest number of people we can know personally. These were people we could trust and feel an emotional affinity for.

That’s right.


I’m more inclined to agree with what organisational behaviour and management expert Charles Handy said in his book “21 Letters On Life & Its Challenges“. In the 10th letter of the book, Handy contends that Dunbar’s 150 is “pushing it”.

My experience certainly bears this out.

You can give your heart and soul to 150, or even 15, if you’re like the foolish old me. But you may end up like I did this past year — realising I’m “lucky” to even have 5 “return the love”, let alone 15, or (gulp) 150!

I think Dunbar also realised this, and so he had another bit of research where it showed that intimacy levels progress in multiples of three.

At the first level, we may have just five people whom we know intimately and trust without question. In short, our best friends.

The next level, 15 (multiples of three, remember?), refers to good friends or mates who we enjoy being around. Then comes 45 whom we see now and then, followed by 135 that make up those on our list of social media contacts.

Now that sounded more in line with what my social experiment yielded.

But then the next question for me came fast and furious…

“…where have all the good men gone?”

interior of indoors basketball court in sports center
Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

These first seven words, belted out by the incomparable Bonnie Tyler back in 1984, reverberates in the uncomfortable silence of my self-enforced solitude, as I “severed” ties with friends this past 1.5 years.

(Of course Ms Tyler and I are probably asking that question for very different reasons!)

But seriously, where indeed have all my guy friends gone?

Were these so-called friends really just “vocational friends” as artist and critic Gelett Burgess calls them? Like Friend A’s just good for chatting about movies, and B for mere financial advice over a cuppa?

Guess I was wrong all along about how friends are supposed to be. I naively assumed that friends can be everything for me in every way. Maybe that explains why in the past I use to initiate most get-togethers (ever the eager beaver to stay connected), while my efforts were rarely reciprocated with equal gusto.

Talk about a light bulb moment!

So be it!

five bulb lights
Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

Now many would probably think it’s no biggie. And truth be told, who’s got the time to keep up with so many friends anyway? (Extroverts, social butterflies and “professional attention & limelight-seekers” need not reply)

And if you subscribe to what Geoffrey Greif, sociologist and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, said about the four categories of male friends: Must / Trust / Rust / Just (in descending order of closeness), then what I’m experiencing isn’t all that unusual.

Except that I clearly have, after walking this earth for over 50 years, mostly “rust and just” male friendships. The kind that can let months and years lapse without the need to connect.

Though it saddens me, I’m no longer the gangly and socially awkward teen I used to be, desperate for friends and eager to be with the “in-crowds” and to “see and be seen” (although the Facebook feeds I receive show that some of my peers are still living that way today!).

If this is how the remaining days of my life will look like from hereon, with few friends and almost no guy friends, then so be it!

To quote Niloder Neubert in her piece aptly named “Growth”:
I have stopped letting
friends who only give
half of what I pledge
keep me up at night

At least now I know I have five reliable female friends.

I can be cool with that.


I can.

Or can I?

Anyway, to those fantastic fives I just have to say, “Thanks ladies; you’ve made my day!”

One thought on ““Who’s with me?” The truth about friends

  1. Well said, Mr Seah! Agreed, as we grow older, true friends may be something of the past and our social circles get smaller. Nowadays, I’m just glad I’m rid of fair weathered friends. I applaud your determination to see this project through to find out who you can truly count on and I’m glad that you have the company of those 5 ladies! As usual, this post was most insightful and you’ve managed to catch the hard and often unspoken truths, a rare asset amongst today’s writers! Have a great 2021 ahead!

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