When her next-door neighbor showed up with the chairs, Devyn Tone knew she’d made her first pandemic friend.
They got to know each other standing up. After they spoke for the first time in March 2020, Tone and her neighbor started to linger on the front steps of his Austin quadruplex, savoring the rare moment of social interaction. She’d pet his dog, he’d ask about her job. Sometime in June, she brought out a camp chair. He grabbed an old patio chair. Another woman who lived nearby came out to join them, sitting cross-legged on the cement.
Later that summer, Tone’s neighbor came home with a surprise in the trunk of his car: Three plastic Adirondack chairs from Home Depot.
“That’s when I knew,” Tone said: “We’re friends.”
The coronavirus pandemic has tested a lot of friendships. Alone in our apartments, we’ve been trapped in our heads, wondering why our friend hasn’t texted us back, replaying that one awkward thing we said two weeks ago when we sat six feet apart in the park. But the pandemic has also strengthened certain friendships, experts say — and allowed a few new ones to form. Extracted from our daily routines, grappling with extraordinary isolation and grief, many of us have bonded with new people, or been reintroduced to those who know us best.
Proximity is a key ingredient for friendship, studies show. That’s been especially true in the pandemic, said Marisa Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert based in Washington, D.C. Many people have befriended their neighbors, she said, because “those relationships are already at our fingertips,” available without us having to “venture out into the big, scary pandemic world.” While you may have eagerly jumped in an Uber to see a friend before the coronavirus, she said, distance quickly became a “barrier to entry.” It was so much easier to spend a night outside with your neighbors than to venture 20 minutes to take a walk when it might end up raining anyway.
The more we see someone, the more we tend to like them, said Franco. For months, neighbors may have been the only people we saw in person outside of our households. We saw them when we walked our dogs and when we took out the trash. That kind of “continuous unplanned interaction,” particularly when we’ve had so little exposure to others, is a solid foundation for friendship, Franco said.
Other people have made new friends over the phone or on Zoom. Kendall Curtis, in Los Angeles, was a year into graduate school when the pandemic began. She moved in with her mom and cut herself off from almost all in-person interaction, seeing a handful of friends outside every couple of months after they’d all taken multiple coronavirus tests. With all her classes moved online, she assumed she probably wouldn’t make many new friends, she said. Then a classmate she’d never met messaged her on Zoom to ask her to join a study group. They set up a call and talked for four hours about their favorite vacations, their families and their faith. Soon, she said, they were talking almost every day.
“I’ve never been a phone person,” said Curtis. “But now I can sit down and have a thorough conversation, whereas before I would have been on and off in 20 minutes.”
There are fewer distractions on the phone, she said. Before the pandemic, she hung out with friends in bars and restaurants. She was always thinking about something else: what she was wearing, what she wanted to eat.
“Now it gets a lot deeper,” she said. She is fully focused on her friend.
Some existing friendships have strengthened in the pandemic, said Franco. When you go through something difficult or traumatic alongside someone else, you’ll probably end up feeling closer to them, she said, especially if you open up to each other. Maybe you called a friend in a moment of crisis — when your baby wouldn’t stop screaming and you couldn’t get any work done. Because the pandemic was a universal event, touching almost every person on the planet, that friend might share similar experiences with you, Franco said.
“A common struggle brings us together. When we reach out to people who say, ‘Me too,’ it helps us to relinquish our shame in a way that binds us.”
We also tend to like people more when they’re vulnerable, said Franco. It’s called the “beautiful mess effect”: Vulnerability is a sign that you trust someone, she said, which opens the door to deeper friendships.
Before the pandemic, Emily Row hardly knew her roommates. They hung out for the first time a few days after everything shut down, she said, congregating in their Los Angeles living room to watch a movie. A year later, they’ve watched over 70 movies and shows together. They keep track with a list scotch taped to their living room wall.
Row had only lived in Los Angeles for a year before the pandemic hit. Thousands of miles away from her family in New Jersey and New York, she said, she felt lonely and isolated, falling asleep on Zoom with her sister. Once Row was home full time with her roommates, she said, it wasn’t long before she felt comfortable opening up to them. For months leading up to Christmas, Row had been dreading the holiday, knowing she’d have to spend it away from her family. But then all her roommates stayed home together, she said — and it was one of the best Christmases she’d ever had.
It got easier for friends to be spontaneous during the coronavirus, said Franco, even if that spontaneity happened almost exclusively online. When we consider asking a friend to spend time with us, we are always weighing the risk of rejection, said Franco. If we think they’re likely to turn us down, we might avoid making the ask. In the pandemic, friends became more likely to reach out to each other on short notice, asking to hang out on Zoom that night. Because everyone was hanging out at home, you knew they’d probably be free.
Many used the pandemic to reconnect with old friends, said Mahzad Hojjat, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who studies friendship. When socializing shifted to Zoom, she said, it became just as easy to hang out with the college friend who lives across the country as the work friend who lives across town. Especially in the first few months of the pandemic, feeling anxious and scared about what was to come, many contacted the people who knew them well, she said, reaching for the friendship version of “comfort food.”
When friends help us through a difficult period, they carve out a special space for themselves in our lives, said Hojjat.
“You never forget that.”
You’ll always remember that time you ran out of toilet paper, she said — and the friend who showed up at your door with a roll.