It’s hard not to look at places like your phone contacts, or Gchat list, or Facebook friends, and not feel as though you have way more people in your life than you really know (or know what to do with). It’s not necessarily a negative in and of itself — unless, of course, your goal is simply to connect acquaintances in the interest of seeming “popular” — but it does make life (and the friendships which truly matter) feel rather cluttered. It’s not as though everyone we keep on our online or IRL contacts lists is a terrible person who is bringing our life and/or self-esteem down, but chances are high that we don’t actually get much out of the “relationship.”
And yet, every day, it becomes harder to distinguish between people who are “friends” and people who are “acquaintances.” You might socialize with both, you invite both to social outings, you may talk with both of them over the internet now and again — but how many of them do you consider close? How many of them do you really enjoy spending time with? How many of them teach you something, or encourage you, or make you feel positive about yourself? While there will always be those closest to us who are easy to recognize and distinguish from the unwashed masses of halfway internet friends, there is usually a large group of “in-betweens” who register similarly in your life, despite not be universally beneficial.
It’s likely that you have more than a few people on your friends lists or in your phone whom, should a party be coming up, you would probably invite. You would probably wish them a happy birthday when you are notified about it, or chat with them if you’re bored. But with this group of people, if you actually stop to consider it, there is nothing about them that you really like. This does not mean that they are inherently bad people (though there may very well be many of these acquaintances who actually make you feel bad about yourself), it most likely just means that they are not for you. Perhaps they have different tastes, or senses of humor, or manner of treating people. It’s not a question of oil and water — you can clearly get along in a light, superficial way — but it’s not a friendship you are going to take with you in life.
And perhaps it’s fine to have many of these people in your life. Perhaps there is no inherent harm in keeping in touch with people you don’t actually care about, or actively socializing with people who don’t interest you. But it is certainly true that there is a limited time in our life to dedicate to friends, no matter how we choose to define that term, and there is a limited amount of energy we have to give to other people. While it can certainly be exciting to have a birthday party with 50 attendees, largely collected from Facebook, it is worth considering how many people out of that 50 are really your friends. If you were in need, if you were going through a difficult moment, if you were even mildly inconvenient — how many of them would be there?
It could sound terribly selfish, or even cruel, but do we not owe it to ourselves to take a hard account of who is actually in our life? There is no reason to be cold and aggressive about cutting people out of our lives or reducing their influence, but is it not an improvement to stop dedicating time and energy to people who don’t actually matter to you? Is there not an inherent degree of insincerity in maintaining relationships with people largely out of fear of hurting their feelings or enduring a moment of social awkwardness? To be honest with yourself about how many friends you actually have, and how many of them are actually just placeholders, is certainly difficult — but is it not worth it?
There is no rule which says that we can’t have acquaintances. There is certainly a place in life for people whom you know on a very shallow level, but with whom you always have a perfectly fine time. There is no reason that everyone has to be incredibly close to you, or else factor into your life not at all. But the line between “acquaintance” and “friend” has been blurred to the point where many of us are used to using the latter to refer to what is clearly the former. It may feel good to be surrounded by so many contacts, to have a social network which feels rich and flattering, but how much space should we give to people who barely even notice they have it?