Q. Not urban, not yet suburban: One of my best friends just informed me, after I called him out on avoiding me for weeks, that because I am moving from the city where we both live to suburbia, he is no longer “feeling the friendship” and wants to end it. The TL;DR is that he has an enormous fear of being abandoned, and I think proactively decided to abandon me so I couldn’t do it to him—except that I had no intention of abandoning him, and was caught completely off guard.
He is single; I’m married with a preschooler, who adores him, by the way, and will definitely notice the lack of his presence—and he talked about how now I could be a “suburban mom” and forget all about my city friends. He gaslit me, making it sound like I had told him I wouldn’t miss him, wouldn’t come visit the city ever again (I’m moving 20 miles and a direct train ride away; it’s hardly a hardship to come see friends!), and because he doesn’t have a car and can’t come see me, there was no point to staying friends at the same level we have been. I never said or even came close to any of this! I admit that I’ve been talking a lot about my move very positively—it really does feel like a fresh start to me, having a home and yard after living in 750 sq. ft. apartment for the pandemic with a toddler—but he claims I’m just too happy about leaving the city and he loves the city so much that we can’t be friends the same way.
I’m so angry at him right now that I can’t see past any of this to consider contacting him again, but to not contact him would mean that he’s right, I moved away and abandoned him. But…is this a friendship worth salvaging? And if so, how? This all feels like so much bull to me. We’re in our 40s, by the way!
A: I can very much imagine getting a letter here from a single man saying, “One of my best friends moved from the city to the suburbs and all she talks about is countertops and lawn care and finding a nanny and it’s so boring and I just don’t feel like we connect anymore and don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.” I would probably tell him to make an effort to talk about things that interest him, to give you a little space to be excited about your new life, to be deliberate about making plans together, and to hold off on declaring the friendship dead until trying these things.
But instead, he just cut you off. To me, that’s a sign of being a bit immature, selfish, and inflexible—and that he only valued you for the way you fit into his current life rather than who you are. If you don’t feel like contacting him, don’t—after all, he’s basically ended the friendship without your input. But maybe, like you said, this is just a tantrum over feeling abandoned. If once you get settled, you decide you’re still thinking about him and want to be the bigger person (and the person who rides the train to meet for dinner), tell him you miss him and offer to meet up somewhere convenient to him. If he accepts, you can feel out whether you enjoy the new iteration of your friendship and what it takes to maintain it. If he declines, you have your answer and you can live your suburban life in peace.
There are multiple factors at work here:
Even in an era of social media, video calls, and the Internet, proximity matters for friendships and relationships. Being further away makes it more difficult to get together. Twenty miles from city to suburb is not insurmountable but it is not necessarily easy depending on transportation and traffic. People can often form relationships with neighbors, people at work, and others they see regularly at groups and places even as they have the option to date and meet people through apps.
Suburban life is often focused on different things than urban life. The priorities can be different. Here is my list of why Americans love suburbs: single-family homes, family life and children, race and exclusion, middle-class utopia, cars and driving, local government and local control, and closer to nature. This leads to an everyday experience centered on private homes and family lives, driving, limited diversity and cultural opportunities compared to many cities, and distance from the big city. This could be contrasted with what residents of cities often say they value: being close to activity and cultural opportunities, more people around, less driving, and more diverse populations. Life in the suburbs and cities can look very different, though some of the things people like in each kind of place can be found in the other.
Possibly losing a close friend is hard. Social media makes it possible to hang on to relationships for a long time without much interaction but that is not the same as regular, in-person interaction.
Individual preferences and actions. The letter above speaks to a particular situation between two people even as it hints at broader patterns (#1-3 in the factors above).
Can city/suburbs relationships work? Yes. Does it have particular obstacles? Maybe. Do people like it when their friends move away? No.
While studying online theoretically gives students who are place bound for work or family reasons more geographic flexibility than does in-person study, the Online College Students research shows that ever larger numbers of fully online students are staying close to home.
As seen in the graphic below, 67 percent of respondents said they lived within 50 miles of a campus or service center of the college where they are studying, up from 42 percent just five years ago. Meanwhile, the proportion who said they are studying at least 100 miles from where they live has dropped by more than half, to 15 percent in 2019 from 37 percent in 2014.
The report’s authors offered this analysis: “The growing number of schools offering online programs provides students with more options closer to their home. Local schools have greater visibility among employers and others in the community, which is valuable to students.”
The explanation offered makes some sense: nearby colleges are known in the community. A degree from a local school may mean more than a school from elsewhere.
But, this could lead to some interesting connections:
1. Does this suggest that students have a hard time differentiating from all of the online course options out there? One way to filter all of those options would be to stick to recognizable nearby names.
2. I wonder how the marketing of local institutions matters. Media outlets in the Chicago area are full of advertisements from universities and colleges pushing online programs. Of course, there are national voices advertising in there as well but some of these can be unknown institutions (I’m thinking of Southern New Hampshire University).
4. I’m reminded of findings that suggest social media users often make online connections with people they already know offline. In other words, social media users are not always seeking out random connections or unknown people to interact with. Could the same principle apply to colleges?
In the long run, what if the online world ends up leaning local in terms of the connections people make and maintain?
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
It is interesting to consider how well this compares with online friendship. Let’s look at Facebook:
1. Proximity. This is virtual proximity where your friends are easy to access and Facebook helpfully tells you what they are up to. It is interesting to note that most friends of Facebook users are people they know from the offline world – there is a lot of overlap between these two realms.
2. Repeated, unplanned interactions. This could happen through wall posts, messages, tagging, and chatting. However, users of Facebook can choose when and how they do this as opposed to consistently running into someone in the offline world. This choice of interaction allows users to participate when and with whom they want in a way that wasn’t possible before.
3. Setting that allows people to let down their guard. Maybe the privacy settings in Facebook allow this but not in the same way as proximity and face-to-face interactions. Facebook is full of impression management where users create the image they want to project to others (this is also true of face-to-face interactions).
All together, Facebook capitalizes on the some of the advantages and difficulties of the early 21st century but it doesn’t replicate the experience of developing friendships in-person.
Through an extension of the “long-standing sociological theory” people who tend to frequent the same places may be similarly-minded individuals, Salvatore Scellato, Anastasios Noulas, and Cecilia Mascolo, have developed a friend prediction program based on the places people visit.
Sites such as Facbook and LinkedIn often suggest friends based on a ‘friend of a friend’ approach but now it could be based on where users ‘check in’.
The system would also use different weightings for places like gyms – where people frequent – as opposed to airports, where people visit only occasionally…
They discovered about 30 per cent of social links developed because of people visiting the same places.
It sounds like location is not everything when it comes to forming friendships but it does play an important role.
I don’t know if many people think about why they are friends with the people they are friends with but I suspect one argument might emerge: we choose to be friends with our friends. Such a story would fit with tales we tell about finding romantic partners. It gives agency to each participant and suggests each person found the other to be likeable. But perhaps another story might emerge as well: we just sort of started hanging out together. This story would be tied to proximity: people who are placed or place themselves in particular places or situations are more likely to become friends. Some classic examples include being in a series of high school classes together, being assigned to certain roommates early on in college, starting work at a particular company. In each of these situations, people still have some room to choose their friends but their pool of possible friends is more limited by structural forces. Theoretically, you could be friends with anyone but realistically, you will come in contact with a more limited number of people in life.
Perhaps some still think that the Internet can reduce the impact of proximity by connecting people who never or rarely are in the same location. However, research suggests that most SNS (Facebook, Myspace, etc.) relationships are based on existing off-line relationships. The power of proximity will last for some time, even if most people don’t think about it.
A new study of a 2009 epidemic at a school in Pennsylvania has found that children most likely did not catch it by sitting near an infected classmate, and that adults who got sick were probably not infected by their own children.
Closing the school after the epidemic was under way did little to slow the rate of transmission, the study found, and the most common way the disease spread was a through child’s network of friends…
The scientists collected data on 370 students from 295 households. Almost 35 percent of the students and more than 15 percent of their household contacts came down with flu. The most detailed information was gathered from fourth graders, the group most affected by the outbreak.
The class and grade structure had a significant effect on transmission rates. Transmission was 25 times as intensive among classmates as between children in different grades. And yet sitting next to a student who was infected did not increase the chances of catching flu.
Social networks were apparently a more significant means of transmission than seating arrangements. Students were four times as likely to play with children of the same sex as with those of the opposite sex, and following this pattern, boys were more likely to catch the flu from other boys, and girls from other girls.
This sounds like a very interesting dataset as it was collected in real-time as the disease spread. Hopefully, we will get more data like this in the future so that we aren’t left with the problem of trying to trace a disease’s spread after the fact. But getting this kind of data would require more intense observation (or records) of a specific group of people.
If closing the school is not the answer, how then should authorities respond in order to slow down the spread of disease?
Sounds like another advantage for Social Networking Sites where you can interact with your friends with only the threat of a computer virus…