Why have we become so difficult to befriend?

Credit: Eric Ward

In the age of loneliness why are we so hard to befriend?

We now know that loneliness is so widespread that one in two people feel lonely at least one day a week. Some health professionals say loneliness is as harmful to us as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Loneliness has even become a preoccupation of artists. Head to the National Gallery of Victoria at the moment and you’ll see th KAWS: Companionship In The Age Of Loneliness exhibition.

The exhibit features enormous Muppet-like figures created by contemporary American artist Brian Donnelly. Rather than being cute, these figures, with their deadened eyes are chilling, reminding us that if we are not desperately lonely at this moment, we have been before and we are terrified we will be again.

But when it comes to making and maintaining friends, our current rules around social etiquette seem to be more about repelling people than strengthening our human connections.

Our reluctance to let people into our lives is quite a change from my childhood experience. When I was a kid it seemed that people would spontaneously drop into our house for no other reason than they were passing by and felt like a cup of tea and a chat.

My parents are not what you’d call social butterflies. They were both working parents and were just as busy as I am, yet they found time to invite people over for dinner.

They even organised dinner parties, complete with prawn cocktails and after dinner mints. In Brisbane in the 1980s, this was the height of sophistication.

Nowadays showing up unannounced to a friend’s house is not only rare, it’s often considered rude. The dinner party is largely a forgotten relic of the 1980s.

FOMO (fear of missing out) has been replaced by FOJI (fear of joining in), and we wonder why we are lonely?

All that technology that’s meant to seamlessly connect us and overcome cultural hurdles to socialisation has been no help at all.

People will bare their souls on social media, pouring out the most imitate information to acquaintances and, sometimes, complete strangers. But how many of these followers would be happy to receive a call for help at 2am?

All the emoji hearts and sad faces made of pixels in the world cannot replace one real-life hug from a friend who genuinely understands and cares about our pain.

And that makes me wonder if the faux friendship of social media has destroyed our real connections. The other, and infinitely bleaker possibility, is that we cling to social media because it’s all we have left.

I’m no different. I realised just how difficult I am to befriend when one of my closest friends texted me to set up a time to call me. This wasn’t a phone conference, mind. It was an informal chat but we were behaving as if we had a professional relationship rather than a personal one.

So many of people’s interactions are mediated remotely through a screen. But blaming screens for our loneliness seems too easy.

Pretending screens are the cause of all our woes is as simplistic — and delusional — as the idea that our devices will magically connect us if we just install the right software or get the next upgrade.

Both the hope that screens will save us or damn us is a distraction from the real source of the problem: us.

We are the ones who have made our walls so high and so difficult to penetrate by anyone who may wish to offer us the life affirming — and lifesaving — gift of friendship.

And that should give us all cause for hope. We can learn something from our parents and the relaxed approach to the casual drop-in, phone call or the dinner party.

We erected the walls that separate us, and it is we who can lower them.

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