I commented to a friend a few weeks ago, just how dull our conversations had become; how repetitively saturated they were with the mundane frustrations of lockdown: with brief interludes of Zoom malfunctions and the woes of cancelled weddings serving as minor respites from the monotony of it all.
As no doubt every headline and email from the last few months will have told you: we are living in unprecedented times.
Something I have observed, is the extent to which this has permeated my conversations with friends. Our chats were, at the beginning of lockdown; primarily about death tolls, masks and antibacterial hand sanitisers; when we would see each other again; just how strange this new world was.
And then lockdown began to lift. Then the Cummings scandal happened. And then George Floyd was murdered…
Suddenly we had a LOT to talk about.
The conversations between friends during lockdown have never felt more ripe for examination, nor – sadly enough – more loaded with tension and division. Because separated physically…our other divisions have never felt starker.
When the Cummings scandal erupted, an actual argument broke out in one of my Whatsapp groups. Some found his actions understandable, and called for compassion, whilst others – who felt they had sacrificed enormously during lockdown – were furious.
Much like Brexit beforehand, lines in the sand were beginning to be drawn between friends, grounded in ideology and personal experience.
The situation of lockdown has compounded this, as so much of this experience has been about the haves and have nots. Those with comfortable homes and those without. Those smugsolating in Home Counties familial piles; flower arranging and becoming amateur mixologists on Instagram, whilst the rest of us queue at a social-distance outside Tescos, or wrangle with nightmare flatmates.
Any existing divides in your friendship group before; between those with privilege and those without, were usually able to exist out of sight. Now, in lockdown; they are brought to the surface.
“I can’t look at her idyllic house anymore,” said a friend of mine about a university friend of hers, whose isolation at her family house has – apparently – revealed the staggering wealth of her parents, “It’s making me feel really bad about my lockdown situation.”
“Now she’s asking me to come and visit,” she says, “But it’s awkward to tell her that I have no way of casually getting across the country on a long and expensive train journey in the middle of a pandemic. Not all of us have a Land Rover in the driveway.”
I find myself in a similar situation. Because that’s the other thing: cars.
Being a lifelong Londoner, I never felt the need of one. Now public transport has become the assumed epicentre of a literal viral plague, cars are the only way to realistically travel across the city. Unless you happen to have a bike (I don’t) and are not terrified of cycling on a main road (I am).
Swiftly, even my London friends have become divided between those with country homes to flit away to, or the wheels to make travel – and socialising- a possibility, and the rest of us who don’t, and can only socialise with anyone walking distance away.
We feel limited for the first time, practically pauperish.
The conversations around these issues are tricky, namely because the root of them is money: who has it, who doesn’t. And money is always super comfortable to talk about with your friends, right?
Money is, of course, relevant in a whole new way during lockdown, thanks to the differing circumstances of many friendship groups. Some may be furloughed, others struggling on reduced hours, many more may well be unemployed, or self-employed and chasing government grants and universal credit.
I ask financial wellness expert Bola Sol, what her advice would be for those struggling with conversations with friends about money.
“There isn’t one particular format I’d use to start the conversation but honesty about your situation is key,” she explains, “Vulnerability and trust is required so it is also imperative that we are aware of who we call a friend. Say what’s really on your heart and how it’s made you feel. Do you require space at this time? If that’s the case, say so.”
Talking about money- especially if we suffer from a lack of it- is particularly exposing. Bola suggests framing it simply and imploring understanding.
“You could literally just say something along the lines of: “I’ve just been made redundant because of Covid-19 and I’m not sure how to feel right now. It may not be the best time for us to go on holiday. I hope you understand,”” she says, “Allow that friend to be there for you in a way you feel comfortable with. Remember, there are alternative ways to have fun. Dining out- once restaurants are open- can turn into dining in with a come dine with me twist! Or a holiday abroad can become a staycation in the UK. Where there’s true friendship there’s opportunity to grow together, even with finances.”
The other division between friends right now is, of course, where you stand on anxiety around Covid19. Whilst I know many people happily bending the rules and who will be the first to flock to the pubs when they open, others are still inside, scared, or living with those who are shielding.
I find myself in the grips of struggling to communicate with my own friends about this. One very kindly invited me up to her house in Oxfordshire.
“We’ll go on country walks with the dogs, it will be brilliant- I’ll come and pick you up in my car.”
Five months ago? I would have jumped at this. But all that kept going off in my head were alarm bells.
Two hours in a car, a confined space, with someone outside my household? What if we get Covid, what if we bring it back to my parents? What if we kill them all so that we could go on a jolly in Oxfordshire with some dogs??
It was hard to find the words to convey the rambling, stream-of-consciousness panicthat runs through my head when this happens. Yet I need to find the right vernacular because it is happening more and more often.
A very dear friend invited my boyfriend and I for dinner in her garden with her and her husband. This is something that fills me with absolute joy as they are two of my most favourite people. But they are also both NHS doctors, and my boyfriend and I are living with my 70 year old parents.
What’s the etiquette for saying- thank you for fighting this pandemic for us but, erm, like we are too scared to see you? How dreadful is that?
Simone Bose, a counsellor at Relate, offers advice on how to handle these tricky situations.
“I think we have to respect each other and our differences. Like if someone genuinely feels more scared or vulnerable, or if people they are with are, we need to be respectful of that and we should understand it,” she says, “Also, the guidelines are still there – the facts remain that way- so you are basing it in fact, which hopefully can help those awkward conversations! The government has said there are these things in place.”
Even as a thirty-one year old woman, I can’t help but feel like a goody two shoes whenever I cite government guidance. I’m Sandy from Grease who won’t smoke behind the bike shed with Rizzo, Hermoine Granger worrying about getting expelled.
“That feeling speaks to an understandable need to want to fit in and not be left out,” she says, “But it’s important that when we phrase these things to our friends, we do so in a way that does not imply a judgement of their actions. I think we need to remember that we are all struggling at this time in different ways. Go easy on others and go easy on yourself!”
The judgement is interesting. Among my friends and the friends of colleagues, there is the whispered commentary of who is breaking the rules and who is not. A friend of mine started a new relationship during lockdown and has been far too nervous to tell many people.
“I don’t want hate from people when they find out I’ve been breaking lockdown rules with him for weeks” she says, “It’s been super hard not to talk about him as I am so excited about this new relationship, but I just don’t want the judgement.”
Another friend started inviting her cleaner back a few weeks ago.
“I just don’t tell people,” she says, “The judgement was intense from friends- even when I suggested it! Our group is divided by those who agree with me, and those who really don’t.”
These small dividing lines are growing in intensity. Yet so has the potency of our conversations with friends. In a year when all of us are rethinking our lives and our priorities; how our friendships have met the challenges of 2020 is significant. And never more so than right now.
Because conversations with friends have taken on a whole new significance since Black Lives Matterreturned to the forefront of our collective consciousness post the murder of George Floyd. We are not just undergoing some serious, uncomfortable soul searching as a nation, we are having to look around us at the company we keep. Have we ever spoken so much to our friends about these issues?
With some friends I have spent hours on zoom and at a two metre distance in parks, discussing the weighty issues that have erupted over the last few days. To my friends- black and white- on the arguments over the statues, on the rhetoric of commercial brands on this issue and the responsibility of us all to educate ourselves.
These have mostly been constructive, eye-opening discussions- some of which have been going on for years, others which are fresh- invited by the current political climate. Yet some friends I have steered away from when it comes to this topic- fearful, perhaps, of what they might think. Which worries me…
“I think you almost have to create a safe space to say- look we’re talking about this, but we are going to let ourselves hear from other people and other views,” says Simone, of how to approach these conversations, “Ultimately everyone is different and some people are more confident with conflict than others. Some people feel as if they can’t speak up – that they don’t know as much, or they may just not have a very strong opinion. You need to hear everybody – not just one loud voice in the room. If someone is saying ‘this is my point and i don’t see anyone else’s point, then you have to stop and ask yourself; is this a safe space?’ If that is the vibe in the group then you won’t hear people’s genuine thoughts and opinions and people will clam up.”
Beyond just the differences in circumstance thrown up by Covid19 – what happens when you find yourself divided from friends by ideology?
“I think it is about asking and interrogating your friends on that viewpoint, as opposed to attacking them and just simply saying ‘You’re wrong!” That is how people fall silent and get defensive and rationale goes out the window. Being curious about why people say what they say or think that way is a good stepping stone to a conversation about that; its the best way to then say: well this is what I think so maybe we should agree to disagree or, this is why I disagree etc…,” explains Simone, “But if someone has a view that really goes against your views, one that really slips into your friendship, one that you think actively influences how they treat you- and other people- that may be the point at which you rethink that friendship. Is their belief more important than your friendship? I think if so, you may need to look into whether this person becomes more of an acquaintance or if you terminate the friendship.”
So perhaps 2020 is the year of reckoning- where we approach complicated situations, from money to anxiety to entire belief systems, with honesty and compassion. The conversations we have with our friends right now need to be approached with an openness and frankness that may well be as unprecedented as the times we are living through.