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Deep impact: it’s time to ditch the small talk

The Economist Espresso via e-mail for Monday October 4th

Deep impact: it’s time to ditch the small talk


Imagine waiting in a queue or for a bus, when a stranger sidles up to you and genially asks: “What is your life’s greatest regret?” If that thought fills you with horror, read on. According to research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people secretly crave deeper conversations with strangers.

In experiments with 1,800 people, pairs of strangers were prompted to discuss topics either shallow (“Seen anything good on telly lately?”) or deep (“When was the last time you cried?”). Before-and-after surveys revealed that all conversations, but especially deeper ones, were less awkward than people expected. They were also more enjoyable and aroused a greater sense of connectedness than stock chit-chat.

Psychologists say people underestimate how interested in them strangers are, and should delve deeper than the usual natter about football or the weather. So the next time you break the ice with a stranger, consider using a sledgehammer instead of a pick.

Deep impact: it’s time to ditch the small talk PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES Imagine waiting in a queue or for a bus, when a stranger sidles up to you and genially asks: “What is your life’s greatest regret?” If that thought fills you with horror, read on. According to research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people secretly crave deeper conversations with strangers. In experiments with 1,800 people, pairs of strangers were prompted to discuss topics either shallow (“Seen anything good on telly lately?”) or deep (“When was the last time you cried?”). Before-and-after surveys revealed that all conversations, but especially deeper ones, were less awkward than people expected. They were also more enjoyable and aroused a greater sense of connectedness than stock chit-chat. Psychologists say people underestimate how interested in them strangers are, and should delve deeper than the usual natter about football or the weather. So the next time you break the ice with a stranger, consider using a sledgehammer instead of a pick.

Daily briefing | The Economist

A bold, controversial memorial to a wartime massacre in Kyiv | The Economist

Memory and the Holocaust in Ukraine A bold, controversial memorial to a wartime massacre in Kyiv The mix of painful history, Russian involvement and oligarchs is explosive

A bold, controversial memorial to a wartime massacre in Kyiv | The Economist

Memory and the Holocaust in Ukraine
A bold, controversial memorial to a wartime massacre in Kyiv

The mix of painful history, Russian involvement and oligarchs is explosive

Sep 18th 2021


On a balmy September evening locals stroll in a leafy park in Kyiv. Parents push prams. Couples kiss. Young men perch on benches with cans of beer and shawarmas. Among the trees and promenaders stand slabs of granite the height of a person. Implanted in each is a peephole, like the lens of a camera. Peer into one of them, and you see a colour photograph taken on this spot 80 years ago: a ravine, scattered clothes, three German officers looking over the edge. This is Babyn Yar.

The picture was taken at the beginning of October 1941. A few days earlier, on September 29th and 30th, Nazi forces shot 33,771 of the city’s Jews in the ravine (a figure that excludes small children). It was the biggest such massacre of the second world war. Over the next two years, perhaps 100,000 more people were killed, dumped and burned in the same place, including Roma, communists, Ukrainian resistance fighters and patients of a nearby psychiatric hospital. But the slaughter in Nazi-occupied Kyiv began with Ukraine’s Jews; 1.5m had perished by 1945, a quarter of all victims of the Holocaust.

The tragedy of Babyn Yar was never forgotten. Yet as both a topographical feature and a site of mourning, it all but vanished from the map after the war. Now, an international team of artists, scholars, architects and philanthropists is transforming the landscape again, physically and emotionally. The photographs are a small part of a vast project that involves museums, art installations, books, education initiatives and films. Endorsed by Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president, it is funded by businessmen including Mikhail Fridman, a Ukrainian-born Russian tycoon, his associate German Khan, and Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch.

The mix of painful history, Russian involvement and oligarchs is explosive in today’s Ukraine. But the memorial’s ramifications go wider. Many countries have mass graves, “but nobody wants to remember [the victims]”, says Patrick Desbois, a Roman Catholic priest and adviser to the project who spent years documenting the “Holocaust by bullets”. The new memorial, he says, is a message to mass-murderers everywhere: “We always come back.”

For decades Babyn Yar was a place not only of murder but of the physical suppression of memory, first by the retreating Nazis, who scrambled to conceal their crimes, then by the Soviets. Josef Stalin wanted to celebrate his triumph, not mourn tragedy; after the war he launched a new anti-Semitic campaign of his own. Official historiography depersonalised the victims of Nazism as undifferentiated Soviet citizens.

Babyn Yar was levelled. In 1952 some of its cavities were flooded with pulp from a brick factory. There were plans to build a football stadium and entertainment park on top of it. The ravine did not go quietly: in 1961 a dam securing the pulp gave way and a mudslide carrying human remains hit a residential neighbourhood. Hundreds died (the exact toll was hushed up).

Later in the 1960s Viktor Nekrasov, a Kyiv-born Russian writer who had fought at Stalingrad and wrote about it movingly, spoke up about Babyn Yar. To him, covering up the Nazi genocide made the Soviet government complicit. Of the murder and “the subsequent attempt to forget about this murder, to eradicate the very memory of it”, he wrote in 1966, “the first is more tragic. The second is more shameful.”

Nekrasov led one of the first big commemorations of the massacre. Mourners, many of whom had known the victims, gathered at the edge of a Jewish cemetery that had been vandalised by both the Nazis and the Soviets. They held flowers and cried. The kgb cringed. The crowd was quickly dispersed; Nekrasov was expelled from the Communist Party and forced to emigrate. Then, in the early 1970s, Babyn Yar became a rallying point for Jewish dissidents. The Soviet authorities finally put up a monument near the site of the ravine, dedicated “to the Soviet citizens, prisoners and officers executed by the German occupiers”. There was no mention of Jews.

Murder and memory

If Soviet ideology had little room for the Holocaust, it has been a sensitive subject for some Ukrainians for other reasons. Millions of them fought in the Red Army; millions died, in and out of uniform. But in some places the Nazi slaughter was abetted by Ukrainian auxiliary policemen. In others Jews were slain by nationalist partisans. (In the 1960s Ivan Dziuba, a non-Jewish poet who spoke of his shame over anti-Semitism in Ukraine, was imprisoned.)

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Ukraine won independence, the area that had been Babyn Yar became a park. A jumble of plaques and memorials were erected; politicians paid their respects. But the main theme of historical restitution was the Holodomor—the famine Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in the 1930s, killing millions of peasants. As historical trauma often is in new states, the Holodomor became a central plank of national identity.

Five years ago Mr Fridman, the tycoon, saw an opportunity. Born in 1964, he grew up in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine where the large pre-war Jewish population had been all but obliterated. As a student in the 1980s he moved to Moscow and became one of Russia’s richest businessmen. After the revolution that overthrew Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed government in 2014, business and civil society helped fill a void left by the state’s confusion. Having made his fortune in the turbulence that followed the Soviet collapse, Mr Fridman knew that such moments should be seized.

In 2016 he assembled a coalition of businessmen, politicians, activists and intellectuals, both Jewish and gentile, and launched the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre. “Private money frees the project from state ideology,” Mr Fridman says.

How to remember the second world war is always a neuralgic subject. In Poland, references to Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities can result in legal action; in Russia, comparison between Stalinism and Nazism is now a crime. And the idea of private cash shaping memory of the conflict, and of the Holocaust, would be jarring anywhere. Given Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas—not to mention Kremlin propaganda that tars Ukrainians as fascist—the involvement of Russian citizens at Babyn Yar inevitably riled politicians and others. Some feared that the Holodomor would be downplayed. Petro Poroshenko, who as president until 2019 supported the initiative, now worries that representatives of Russia are using history to “discredit the Ukrainian state and Ukrainians”. Some local Jewish activists were irked by the outsiders too.

The appointment in 2019 of Ilya Khrzhanovsky, a Russian film director, as the project’s artistic overseer led to more controversy. His previous work includes a dark film installation exploring coercion and power in a Soviet physics institute, which caused scandals in Ukraine and elsewhere. Mr Fridman has been accused of nefarious meddling; Mr Khrzhanovsky’s initial ideas, such as a suggestion of role-playing by visitors as victims and killers, led to charges that he was planning a sort of Holocaust theme park.

The role-playing was dropped—but Mr Khrzhanovsky is determined to make an emotional impact on an audience for which the war is no longer part of living memory. Anton Drobovych, who left the project and now leads the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, a state body, is sceptical about both the approach and what he sees as the aloof way it has been implemented. “You can’t build a memorial of such national and international significance,” he thinks, “without a proper dialogue and consultation with society.”

The work is ongoing. Four museums, tackling different aspects of Babyn Yar’s history, are still to be built. But Mr Fridman, whose outlook is shaped as much by his Jewish roots and upbringing in Ukraine as by his affiliation to Russia, does not see the memorial as a way to attribute blame; for him it is a means to empower Ukrainian society. “The ability of a country to talk about its past is a sign of maturity,” Mr Fridman says. “People who assume the role of victim can rarely achieve success.”

Sergei Loznitsa, an unflinching Ukrainian film-maker, agrees. “Telling the truth about the Holocaust is intertwined with state-building in Ukraine and the forging of its national identity,” he says. His dispassionate documentary, “Babyn Yar. Context”, which was partly funded by the memorial project, had its premiere at this year’s Cannes film festival, to great acclaim. Based on German and Soviet archive footage, it shows devastated Soviet soldiers surrendering to German troops; Jews being abused by their neighbours in Lviv; jubilant crowds tearing down Stalin’s portraits and cheering the Nazis as liberators, and less jubilant crowds greeting Soviet soldiers a few years later.

The massacre at Babyn Yar was not filmed. Instead viewers see pictures of Kyiv’s Jews and a long, scrolling tribute from “Ukraine without Jews”, an essay by Vasily Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent and author of the epic novel “Life and Fate”, whose mother died in the Holocaust:

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. Murdered are elderly artisans…murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread…and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren…This is the death of a people who had lived beside Ukrainian people for centuries, labouring, sinning, performing acts of kindness, and dying alongside them on one and the same earth.

Grossman’s essay (translated by Polly Zavadivker) captures the ultimate purpose of the memorial as Mr Khrzhanovsky sees it: to rescue faces and voices from oblivion; to make them real, so they can be remembered, mourned and loved for who they were. “We want it to be a place of living memory and of empathy, where people—whatever their age or nationality—can establish their own emotional connection with those who died here. And you can only feel empathy for concrete people.”

He began by collecting names and scanning archives to construct biographies of victims and perpetrators. A team of forensic architects and historians studied old maps, soil samples, photographs and witness statements to reconstruct the lost topography, and the terrible events that followed the Nazi invasion. The information has been used to produce a3d model depicting scenes, buildings and people, which will be encased in a huge kurgan, or burial mound, erected on what was the edge of the ravine. The more detailed and tangible the story of Babyn Yar, the more universal its meaning is intended to be.

The life that was

Among the first art installations to be unveiled was a “mirror field”, designed by Maksym Demydenko and Denis Shibanov. A large stainless-steel disk covers the ground, from which rise ten vertical columns, shot through with bullets of the same calibre used by the Nazis in 1941 (see lead picture). Visitors see their own reflections in the perforated columns and are immersed in sounds that emanate from below—names, prayers and snippets of everyday life recorded in Kyiv before the war. When night falls, the field becomes a mirage of this extinguished life.

A wall of tears

A path leads to the “crying wall” (pictured), created by Marina Abramovic, a feted Serbian artist, which will be completed before a state memorial service on October 6th. A 40-metre-long wall, made of Ukrainian coal, is embossed at the level of the head, heart and stomach with quartz crystals, meant to reflect the diversity of victims at Babyn Yar. Water weeps out. Nearby is a symbolic synagogue, designed by Manuel Herz, a Basel-based architect, made from Ukrainian oak and partly open to the elements. Once again, the past is present: the interior is decorated with copies of ornaments from long-gone synagogues in western Ukraine.

“Memory is not the past. It is the consequence of the past, it is what makes present life possible,” says Anna Kamyshan, who grew up in Ukraine and helped develop the project. Some of her forebears died in the Holocaust; others cheered the murderers. What defines her identity, she says, “is not my blood, but this landscape, this environment, this soil. This Babyn Yar.” ■

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “The ravine”

Why San Francisco’s city government is so dysfunctional | The Economist

Fogged in Why San Francisco’s city government is so dysfunctional Covid-19 has exposed many of the city’s old problems—and some new ones, too

Why San Francisco’s city government is so dysfunctional | The Economist

Fogged in
Why San Francisco’s city government is so dysfunctional

Covid-19 has exposed many of the city’s old problems—and some new ones, too

Aug 28th 2021


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San francisco boasts the lowest death rate from covid-19 of any big American city. An early shutdown, a culture of caution and mask mandates helped curb the spread of the virus. “Our response to covid-19 has been hailed as a national model,” crows London Breed, the mayor. More than 78% of those eligible are fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the country.Listen to this story

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The City by the Bay may have avoided a heavy death toll from covid-19 but, counter-intuitively, it could feel the virus’s impact longer than other places. Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, admits as much. “San Francisco could well have a slower economic recovery than other cities,” he says. The city, with a gdp which roughly matches that of Greece, is facing a swathe of problems. These include emigration, a rise in some types of crime, drugs and homelessness. Dysfunctional and corrupt governance makes them harder to fix.

Faced with the prospect of paying steep rents while enduring some of the longest, strictest lockdowns in the country, people left—some permanently. According to cbre, a commercial-property firm, 27% of offices are being marketed as available in San Francisco (compared with 19% in Manhattan). An analysis by California Policy Lab at the University of California shows that “net exits” from San Francisco (those leaving minus those arriving) rose by 649%—from 5,200 to nearly 39,000—in the last three quarters of 2020. The drop in apartment rents was the largest in the country, although they are climbing back. Even with this adjustment, the cost of living in San Francisco is still around two and a half times higher than the national average and 44% more than New York City.

Much attention has been paid to techies taking their laptops to the suburbs, the Sierras or Austin, Texas, but the less well-off have moved too. In the first quarter of 2021 average wages increased 34% year-on-year, the largest jump of any big county and six times the national average. This suggests a severe shortage of workers, especially in hospitality, says Mr Egan.

With less bustle and fewer commuters, San Francisco’s problems have become more obvious. “We’re a smaller city, a dense city, so our social problems are more visible to people,” says Matt Haney, who represents the troubled Tenderloin neighbourhood on the 11-member Board of Supervisors, which functions as the city’s legislative branch. “Our city government overall fails to meet the moment and has for some time,” he admits.

Start with schools. San Francisco was the only top-25 city not to bring most middle- and high-school pupils back to classrooms at all in the 2020-21 academic year. Meanwhile the school board used its time to scrap merit-based admissions to its leading high school in order to boost diversity, and spent months researching and then voting to change schools named after people it deemed objectionable on grounds of racism or otherwise standing in the way of progress, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, before abandoning the idea after a public outcry.

The renaming-while-not-reopening saga was almost a parody of San Francisco. A school-board commissioner criticised for racist tweets tried to sue her fellow board members and the school district for $87m. Parents who could afford to do so, including the former head of the Parent-Teacher Association, moved their children to private schools. Now an effort is under way to gather enough signatures to remove three commissioners from the school board in a special recall election. On Twitter some teachers and school board members are firing back at “reopener” parents.

A similar dysfunction afflicts policing and the criminal-justice system. Before covid-19 San Francisco was the car-break-in capital of America; but with fewer tourists, criminals have shifted their attention. Home burglaries are up. Shootings have more than doubled in the past year. Viral videos show daytime heists, with perpetrators sauntering out of stores without consequence. Lax enforcement of drug laws can become fatal when even small amounts can kill. In 2020 San Francisco saw around 700 deaths from overdoses, mostly from fentanyl: more than double the number from covid-19.

The district attorney (da), Chesa Boudin, who ran on a platform of sending fewer people to prison and assumed office in January 2020, is the public’s person-of-interest. Two recall campaigns to remove him from office were started. One failed, but the other looks poised to gather enough signatures to trigger a vote. Mr Boudin, the son of two members of the leftist Weather Underground who were convicted for their involvement in the murder of two police officers and a security guard, has many critics, including, unsurprisingly, the police. Tony Montoya, who runs the police union, says officers are taking some cases directly to federal prosecutors, because they feel the da is loth to prosecute them and pursue maximum charges.

Mr Boudin says he is being unfairly targeted. “None of the recall groups talk about how our courthouse has been mostly closed for the past year,” he says. “The issues have been driven more by a pandemic than any policy I’ve pursued.” Nor are the police blameless. In the fourth quarter of last year, the “clearance” rate for robbery (which measures the share of reported crimes that result in an arrest) was half that of New York City. The police are notoriously unresponsive. Gillian Morris, a startup founder, called three times about two office break-ins and one stolen package but never heard back. She describes San Francisco as “the most dysfunctional place I’ve ever lived when it comes to the protection of property and public safety”. (She left and now lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.)

All this is despite San Francisco’s budget more than doubling since 2010 while the population rose less than 9%. As Michael Shellenberger, a journalist, writes in his forthcoming book, “San Fransicko”: “Though I have been a progressive and Democrat all of my adult life, I found myself asking a question that sounded rather conservative. What were we getting for our high taxes? And why, after 20 years of voting for ballot initiatives promising to address drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness, had all three gotten worse?”

One City Hall insider suggests that San Francisco overreacts to issues that are in the national news, and designs solutions to the country’s problems rather than its own. For example, when Mr Boudin ran on his platform of less punitive justice, San Francisco already had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country. In 2019, 106 adults were in prison for every 100,000 people, one-fifth the rate in California and the nation. If the rest of the country behaved like San Francisco, the prison population would decline by 80%, says James Austin of the jfa Institute, a think-tank that evaluates criminal-justice policies.

City politics would look very different, quips one prosecutor, if everyone who got fed up could vote after they left San Francisco. Joel Kotkin of Chapman University blames high costs for the city’s political make-up: “You wouldn’t have the politics of San Francisco if there was still a middle class left,” he says. Young techies are transient and older residents, who locked in affordable housing decades ago, are happy enough with the status quo. The well-heeled can insulate mostly themselves, opting out of public schools and hiring neighbourhood security guards. As it is, the city has been safely Democratic for 40 years and seems allergic to choosing a Bloomberg-type figure from one of the big tech companies to try something different.

No elected mayor has failed to be re-elected in 20 years, points out Griffin Gaffney of Together sf, a volunteer group. That is despite a slew of corruption scandals. Joe Eskenazi, a reporter for Mission Local, an online news site, reckons “San Francisco’s problems aren’t liberalism. They’re incompetence and corruption.” Municipal graft has long been a feature of the city, dating back to the Barbary Coast days and the Gold Rush. But many are unaware that their city is currently at the centre of a big public corruption probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (fbi).

Already three former City Hall department heads have been charged by federal prosecutors, including the former boss of the Public Works Department, Mohammed Nuru, who has been accused of bribery. Craig Fair, the fbi agent in charge, describes “insidious corruption plaguing San Francisco”. Mayor Breed, who once dated Mr Nuru, recently agreed to pay a fine of $23,000 to the city’s Ethics Commission for accepting payment for her car repairs from Mr Nuru and using mayoral stationery to press the then-governor to reduce her brother’s prison sentence.

Ms Breed is also the highest-paid mayor in the country, earning a salary of $351,000. She sits at the summit of a highly paid bureaucracy. In 2020 nearly 150 city employees earned salaries of over $300,000, and roughly one-fifth earned salaries of over $150,000. The cost of living contributes to these pay-packets. But city government also functions like one of those clubby, richly valued startups that politicians accuse of ruining San Francisco—flush with cash, but operating with little oversight. ■

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Fogged in”

Intelligence is like four-wheel drive. It only allows you to get stuck in more remote places.

Garrison Keillor

I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows, but now the damned things have learned to swim.

Frida Kahlo

You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.

William Faulkner

It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.

Eddie Cantor

Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.

Francis Bacon

How to Make Your Friendships Deeper – The Atlantic


The Best Friends Can Do Nothing for You

If your social life is leaving you unfulfilled, you might have too many deal friends, and not enough real friends. ARTHUR C. BROOKS 6:00 AM ET

How to Make Your Friendships Deeper – The Atlantic

Think for a minute about your friendships. Some friends you would text with any silly thought; others you only call a couple of times a year. Some are people you look up to; others you like, but do not especially admire. You fit into these categories for others as well—maybe you are helpful to one person, and a confidant to another. We get different things out of different relationships, which is all well and good.

There is one type of friend almost everyone has: the buddy who can help you get ahead in life, the friend from whom you need or want something. You don’t necessarily use this person—the benefit might be mutual—but the friendship’s core benefit is more than camaraderie.

These are what some social scientists call “expedient friendships”—with people we might call “deal friends”—and they are probably the most common type most of us have. The average adult has roughly 16 people they would classify as friends, according to one 2019 poll of 2,000 Americans. Of these, about three are “friends for life,” and five are people they really like. The other eight are not people they would hang out with one-on-one. We can logically infer that these friendships are not an end in themselves but are instrumental to some other goal, such as furthering one’s career or easing a social dynamic.

Expedient friendships might be a pleasant—and certainly useful—part of life, but they don’t usually bring lasting joy and comfort. If you find that your social life is leaving you feeling a little empty and unfulfilled, it might just be that you have too many deal friends, and not enough real friends.

Decades of research have shown that it is almost impossible to be happy without friends. Friendship accounts for almost 60 percent of the difference in happiness between individuals, no matter how introverted or extroverted they are. Many studies have shown that one of the great markers for well-being at midlife and beyond is whether you can rattle off the names of a few close friends. You don’t need to have dozens of friends to be happy, and, in fact, people tend to get more selective about their friends as they age. But the number needs to be more than zero, and more than just your spouse or partner.

All the more reason, then, to take honest stock of your friendships. Aristotle offers some advice on doing so in his Nicomachean Ethics. According to the philosopher, friendships exist along a kind of ladder. At the bottom rung—where emotional bonds are weakest and the happiness benefits are lowest—are friendships based on utility to each other in work or social life. These are colleagues, partners to a transaction, or simply those who can do each other favors. Higher up are friendships based on pleasure—something you like and admire about the other person, such as their intelligence or sense of humor. At the highest level are friendships of virtue, or what Aristotle called “perfect friendship.” These friendships are pursued for their own sake, and not instrumental to anything else. Aristotle would say they are “complete”—pursued for their own sake and fully realized in the present.

These levels are not mutually exclusive; you can carpool to work with a friend who has the unfailing honesty you strive to emulate. But the point is to classify friendships by their principal function.

You might not be able to put it into words, but you probably know how these “perfect” friendships feel. They often feature a shared love for something outside either of you, whether that thing be transcendental (like religion) or just fun (like baseball), but they don’t depend on work, or money, or ambition. These are the intimate friendships that bring us deep satisfaction.

In contrast to these real friendships, deal friendships—those at the lowest level on Aristotle’s ladder—are less satisfying. They feel incomplete because they don’t involve the whole self. If the relationship is necessary to the performance of a job, it might require us to maintain a professional demeanor. We can’t afford to risk these connections through confrontation, difficult conversations, or intimacy.

Unfortunately, societal incentives push many of us toward deal friends and away from real friends. The average American worker spends 40 hours on the job during the workweek. In leadership, the numbers are much higher. Most of us work with other people, so during the workweek we have less time for our family than for our colleagues, let alone for friends outside of work. In this way, deal friends can easily crowd out real friends, leaving us without the joys of the latter.

Perhaps deal friendships have displaced real friendships in your own life, leaving you feeling a bit bereft. If this is the case, the hardest part—recognizing the problem—is now behind you. The steps to regaining a healthier friendship balance are fairly straightforward.


Ask yourself how many people know you really well—who would notice when you are slightly off and say, “Are you feeling okay today?” If you answer “no one,” know that you aren’t alone. In 2018, an Ipsos poll conducted for the health provider Cigna found that 54 percent of Americans surveyed said they “always” or “sometimes” felt like no one knew them well.

For another test of real friendships, try listing a few people, not including your spouse, with whom you are comfortable discussing personal details. If you struggle to name even two or three, that’s a dead giveaway. But even if you can, be honest: When was the last time you actually had that kind of conversation? If it has been more than a month, you might be kidding yourself about how close you really are.


Cultivating real friendships can be tricky for people who haven’t tried for many years—maybe since childhood. Research shows that it is often harder for men than for women. Women generally have larger, denser, and more supportive friend networks than men. Furthermore, women generally base their friendships on social and emotional support, whereas men are more likely to base friendships on shared activities, including work.

Recognizing this gender pattern, and also that both of us could benefit from deeper friendships, my wife and I started organizing our social life specifically around conversations about more profound issues. At the risk of becoming Mr. and Mrs. Intense, we directed dinnertime chats with friends away from trivialities like vacation plans and house purchases, and toward issues of happiness, love, and spirituality. This deepened some of our friendships, and in other cases showed us that a more fulfilling relationship wasn’t going to be possible—and, thus, where to put less energy.


The key to building perfect friendships is to see relationships not as stepping stones to something else, but as boons to pursue for their own sake. One way to do this is to make friends not just outside your workplace, but outside all of your professional and educational networks. Strike up a friendship with someone who truly can do nothing for you besides caring about you and giving you good company.

Maybe this sounds difficult or awkward, but I assure you it isn’t. It simply requires showing up in places that are unrelated to your worldly ambitions. Whether it is a house of worship, a bowling league, or a charitable cause unrelated to your work, these are the places where you meet people who might be capable of sharing your loves, but without advancing your career. When you meet someone you like, don’t overthink it: Invite them over.

In our go-go world, where professional success is valorized above all else and workism has become like a religion to many, it can be easy to surround ourselves with deal friends. In so doing, we can lose sight of the most basic of human needs: to know others deeply and to be deeply known by them. Christians and followers of other faiths place this deep knowing at the heart of their relationship with God, and it is central to achieving change in psychotherapy.

One of the great paradoxes of love is that our most transcendental need is for people who, in a worldly sense, we do not need at all. If you are lucky, and work toward deepening your relationships, you’ll soon find that you have a real friend or two to whom you can pay the highest compliment: “I don’t need you—I simply love you.”

Ehh. Seems good enough.