For or against: Friendscaping

How intentional should we be about our friendships? 

Some weeks back, a New York Times article recommended that people do a bit of “friendscaping” as their social possibilities expand in the post-vaccine world. What is friendscaping, you may ask, and does it involve snipping your friends’ heads off at the neck with a pair of scissors? (That is what the article’s illustration implies.)

Thankfully, no physical violence is involved. But friendscaping is a kind of culling. The article argues that it “behooves us to take a more curatorial approach when it comes to our friends because who you hang out with determines who you are.” The original supporting evidence behind this assertion was pretty alarming:

Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely that you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same. 

Those lines have since been removed from the article, as an editor’s note at the bottom explains. But initially, people on Twitter were understandably upset about the idea that people who are fat or depressed should be treated as friendship lepers, lest they infect others with such horrors. (It ought to go without saying, but apparently does not, that fat and depressed people are just as deserving of love and companionship as anyone else, that it’s not a bad thing to be fat at all, that depression sucks and smoking a lot comes with health risks but neither of those things are personal failures, etc.)

That blunder aside, the concept of friendscaping itself is worthy of discussion. How intentional should we be about our friendships? 

It definitely makes sense to me to take active steps to befriend people, or try to spend more time with them. I still remember the autumn night in high school, wandering through the woods aimlessly with a boy I had a crush on and a group of people I didn’t know very well, that I decided I wanted to start hanging out with a girl named Laura, who wore her older sister’s scrubs and a tie-dye T-shirt and stopped to howl at the moon.

It worked! My friendship with Laura is still going today, having long outlasted the crush, which turned into a relationship, which turned into awkward silences when we ran into each other in the cafeteria. That night was one of the first times it occurred to me that you could consciously say “Hey, I want to be that person’s friend,” versus friendship being something that just unfolded effortlessly thanks to proximity or some other circumstance. 

It also makes sense to me that sometimes people need to fade out certain friendships, or even just see a friend less frequently for a while. I’m a fan of the idea that sometimes we don’t actually need to cut someone out of our lives; we just need to hit pause. 

What’s harder to imagine is the impulse to perform the kind of big-picture task of friendscaping, evaluating one’s entire social landscape and deciding to give certain friends promotions or demotions. Not only does this sound exhausting, the idea of taking a “curatorial approach” to friendships feels calculating too, like something dreamt up by a snobby sister with a big hat in a Jane Austen period drama. And I also don’t think it’s wise to base our friendship decisions on how we think other people will influence us.

Most people, I think, become friends with other people because of some combination of the following factors: 

  1. They enjoy spending time with the other person

  2. They have something in common (a hobby, a dorm room, a professional field)

  3. They admire certain qualities the other person possesses

Those are all good reasons! Rearranging the amount of time you spend with your friends based on how happy or successful they are so that you can be happy and successful, by contrast, seems like a rather middle-school approach, like wanting to be friends with the popular girls because then you’ll be popular by association. It’s most likely a recipe for creating a superficial circle of friends who don’t actually like each other much.

What’s more, the concept of friendscaping is just unrealistic. We may be lucky enough to have a few true-blue confidantes we can count on all our lives. But the broader world of friendship is too fluid to be carefully arranged. 

We might want to prioritize someone who can’t (or doesn’t want to) prioritize us at the moment, whether because they’re overwhelmed at work, or because they simply see us as more of a casual friend than a potential close one. We might want to distance ourselves from a friend who’s been all doom and gloom lately, but then they adopt a kitten or take up sculpting and suddenly it’s like a brightening filter has been applied to their whole personality.

A close friend may move away and turn out to be pretty bad at keeping in touch. We might go through a crisis ourselves and be surprised to discover who goes silent and who comes through with check-in texts and running last-minute errands, reshuffling our ideas about which people in this world we can count on.

People are messy, is all I mean, myself most definitely included. Humans tend to refuse curation. And there’s something distinctly, depressingly late-capitalist about the idea that, in pursuit of self-improvement, we ought to Kondo our connections. Why make cuts, when we can make room?