“I am fading a little bit. The sun’s starting to come out.”
John and I had been Skyping for more than five hours. We’d Skyped for more than five hours earlier that week, too. And the week before. And nearly every week going back almost a decade.
It’s been more than six years since we saw each other, in 2014, because I live in New Zealand and John’s across the Pacific in the US state of Oregon. Yet thanks to modern technology we’ve never been closer. And thanks to COVID-19, too.
Like many best friends, we’ve been together through thick and thin, ever since we first met in high school and would skip class to see each other – and sign up for other classes based on whether we’d be together. We’d even visit the toilets together.
Money and distance has made it hard to see each other in person since, but we haven’t let that deter us. We once Skyped for more than 12 hours – and did it without sharing our screens to watch a film or TV together. When New Zealand went into lockdown as COVID-19 hit (and Oregon also shuttered workplaces, schools, stores and restaurants), we didn’t miss a beat – in fact, we only talked more frequently. Amid all the uncertainty, our remote friendship has been the emotional rock holding us together.
A lot’s changed in our lives in the years since we last saw each other, from romantic relationships that have come and gone to moving continents for new jobs – several times. But we still bond over things like our mutual love of the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, mutual dislike of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the amazing versatility of Instant Pot multicookers.
Our relationship might sound unique. But Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman – hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend and authors of the new book Big Friendship (which has been praised by the likes of The New York Times Book Review, Vogue and Hillary Clinton) – say very close friendships can “transcend circumstances” like physical distance or how long it’s been since you’ve seen each other.
“They [a close friend] are someone you’re involved with in the day-to-day [of your lives], and you’re invested in keeping the friendship going,” explains Sow.
“If you want to send each other mail by carrier pigeon [to stay in touch], great. It’s about finding what works for you.”
Sow and Friedman say such close friendships can be described as a “big friendship” because there’s a deep emotional connection and both people make an effort to keep the friendship going and deepen the relationship. They also use the term “big friendship” instead of “best friendship” because, as Sow explains, a best friendship often refers to only one person. She adds we can have several very close “big friendships” in our lives.
Friedman explains one way a friendship can be nurtured and strengthened when both people are apart is to set up a regular time to talk – whether that’s monthly, weekly or even daily. She says making a plan to talk can be “really impactful”.
“Close friendships require work, in the way all close relationships require work.”
Sow says there’s another “spicy ingredient” to close friendships.
“There’s an element of ‘mystery’ … You’re discovering new things about each other, similar to a romantic relationship.”
So how do you know your friendship is a close one? Friedman says being open and willing to share feelings can be one sign.
“The one thing they [close friendships] have in common is vulnerability. There’s an openness.”
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s tips for “big friendship”
- Set up a regular time to talk, using whatever method of communication works best for both of you – even if it’s a carrier pigeon.
- Be open and vulnerable with each other.
- Make the effort to nurture and grow the relationship – Sow and Friedman say this is one thing that separates a “big friendship” from a more “circumstantial” friendship.
- Consider trying something new to keep the friendship “spicy,” such as writing letters to each other or finding activities you can safely do together virtually.
Friedman also goes back to a willingness to nurture the friendship as another sign, versus a more “circumstantial” friendship – such as many of those formed when you’re in the same class or at the same job as other people – that is not as close.
“All worthwhile relationships take work and take investment.”
Of course the ongoing pandemic has been a time of unprecedented challenges – including to friendships. But Sow and Friedman agree a close friendship can survive – and there are even opportunities.
Says Friedman: “I think in this pandemic, it’s a great time to try something new.”
Technology has also made keeping in touch with a close or best friend far easier than in the past – something Sow and Friedman say is especially helpful amid COVID-19 and the challenges of safely seeing people face to face.
“It normalises the conversation of ‘how do we keep in touch?'” explains Sow.
“We know our own relationship would not have been possible without technology.”
Neither would their careers: Sow and Friedman have hosted Call Your Girlfriend for years, despite living on opposite sides of the United States.
John and I might not host a podcast or have written a book together. But there’s still no one I would rather have as a best friend.
Like many people, the coronavirus has helped us realise the importance of our closest friendships. Holidays can be rebooked and jobs can be (hopefully) replaced – but close friends can’t. If it wasn’t for being able to connect with him regularly, even though we’re so far apart physically, I’m not sure what I’d do. Amid COVID-19 and all the disruption and anxiety it has caused, I am more thankful for him than ever.
It’s also a good thing Skype hasn’t decided to start charging us for our marathon sessions.
Ben Mack is a writer from North Plains, Oregon, living in Wellington, New Zealand. His work has appeared in Vogue Australia, Newsweek, Insider and Deutsche Welle.