“Why do I randomly miss your friends?” I joked to my roommate. But, to my surprise, she expressed the same sentiment about my close friends, whom she called her "fringe friends," a term describing people who make up the supporting cast of friend characters in your life, falling just outside your closest crew.
As it turns out, however, it makes sense that we'd developed similar yearnings. According to mental-health professionals, fringe friends play an important role in bolstering levels of social health. But after a year-plus of pandemic lockdown, these relationships are the ones that have been pushed even further toward, well, the fringes of our lives.
What, exactly, is a fringe friend?
While "fringe friend" is not a clinical term used in psychology (though it has been cited in a few pockets of the internet), the professionals I spoke with were easily able to pinpoint the type of friends my roommate and I had independently come to miss: Those folks who fall somewhere between your inner circle and the set of loose acquaintances with whom you’re more friendly than real-deal friends. In other words, fringe friends are those friends-of-friends whom you’d typically see in the context of larger gatherings or events and engage in a casual catch-up conversation.
"They might be in your soccer league or improv class and you may really enjoy being around them, but they also aren’t people whom you’d typically keep in touch with outside of that setting.” —friendship expert Marisa G. Franco, PhD
You'll often have some sort of shared activity with fringe friends, but they aren't the people with whom you're going to be emotionally vulnerable, says psychologist and friendship expert Marisa G. Franco, PhD. “We also call this subset of people companionate friends,” she says. “They’re the ones who might be in your soccer league or improv class and whom you may really enjoy being around, but they also aren’t people whom you’d typically keep in touch with outside of that setting.” In some cases, you might call these friends "acquaintances," and in others, merely "friends" (rather than "close" or "best" or "essential" friends). From a sociological perspective, they're perhaps the closer set of people in your periphery with whom your share weak-tie connections.
Why fringe friends matter
When you maintain a variety of fringe relationships, you're upping the chances that you'll encounter a more diverse set of perspectives and opinions as you move about life. “Fringe friends can broaden our lives by allowing social ties with people different from ourselves whom we might not ordinarily seek out as close friends,” says psychologist and friendship expert Irene S. Levine, PhD. And, in turn, fringe friends can even open your eyes to new interests or hobbies that you might not have considered or expected to resonate with you.
Because these friends make up a key part of a wider social community, they can also shield against one of the three main types of loneliness, says Dr. Franco: "Intimate loneliness occurs when we don't have a deep relationship with someone whom we can turn to in times of need; relational loneliness occurs when we lack an inner circle of friends; and collective loneliness happens when we lack a larger group working toward a common goal or enjoying a shared experience," she says. "While a best friend or spouse can satisfy intimate loneliness, and a group of close friends can help you evade relational loneliness, fringe friends play a role in mitigating that collective loneliness."
And, in this way, cultivating fringe friendships may also contribute to your overall wellness: Having a social network has been shown in a handful of studies to boost happiness and feelings of belonging, increase self-esteem, and even have a protective effect on cognition in older age. In fact, a sense of community is so closely tied to longevity, it's one of the nine pillars of the Blue Zones lifestyle, a set of habits employed by the longest-living people in the world.
How the pandemic challenged fringe friendships
Because these fringe connections often hinge on a third element—like the group setting in which you'd typically socialize, the mutual third friend, or the event you always attended together—pandemic restrictions may have all but put the kibosh on many such relationships.
“Fringe friendships can certainly be lost when you can no longer access the activity that acted as the glue for those friendships.” —Dr. Franco
“Fringe friendships can certainly be lost when you can no longer access the activity that acted as the glue for those friendships,” says Dr. Franco. And that holds true even if the activity isn't something so specific as going to concerts or sports games (which was largely not possible during lockdown), but more so just gathering at a third friend’s house—another pandemic no-go. “Friendships tend to be more sustainable in general when we can hang out in groups,” Dr. Franco adds.
While numerous virtual substitutes for keeping up with friends gained popularity during lockdown (from FaceTime and Zoom to plain old phone calls), many of these methods still fell short in the realm of maintaining fringe friendships, says Dr. Franco. Or, at least, they didn't quite work as well as they did for staying in touch with close friends. “With a best friend, for example, you likely already had that script of talking on the phone or FaceTiming every once in a while pre-pandemic,” she says. “But with a fringe friend or friends with whom you’d never done that, trying to set up a video call was bound to feel pretty unnatural and may have even brought up fears of potential rejection, too,” she says.
In other words, scheduling a Zoom with a few fringe friends doesn't really replace the social happenstance of running into them at a group gathering or event. Not to mention, the built-in awkwardness of any video-conference platform (thanks to lag time and the lack of body-language cues) compared to an IRL interaction is something it seems we were willing to endure for only the closest of our friends during lockdown, says Dr. Franco.
How to reconnect with your fringe friends
Just because the pandemic may have paused your fringe friendships doesn't mean they're gone forever. To revive them, the experts stress the upsides of taking the first step and reaching out for a friend date—or, at least, a date with a group of fringe friends.
Feel awkward about that? Dr. Franco suggests priming yourself for the interaction with the basic assumption that these fringe friends still very much like you, and will enjoy hanging out again. "We're typically less likely to be rejected than we think we are," says Dr. Franco, and that applies to fringe friendships, too. You can even wipe the slate clean—that is, just acknowledge from the jump that you didn't interact for a year, and that that's okay—and restart the relationship without any pretenses.
“Begin the conversation by first asking them how they’ve been doing, being sensitive to the fact that the pandemic resulted in many losses including health, employment, and financial ones,” says Dr. Levine. Then, to keep things casual, suggest a pandemic-friendly outdoor gathering where your fringe friends could simply stop by or try a version of whatever activity originally brought you together, whether that's a chess club, game night, or something else entirely.
If that pre-pandemic activity feels a little stale, you could also try re-potting the friendships. “'Re-potting' is a term used by a digital strategist named Ryan Hubbard,” says Dr. Franco. “It’s this theory that, when we vary the settings in which we interact, we get closer to one another.” So, if you’re looking to rebuild intimacy with fringe friends, try interacting with them in a new way, perhaps moving a social-media fringe friend to an IRL setting, or having a coffee date with a book-club friend. There’s no need for fringe friends to fill the exact same role in your life as they used to fill.
And if some of these friends seem to fill, well, no real role in your life now, that's okay, too; for many, the pandemic prompted a realignment of priorities, perhaps in such a way as to make certain close or fringe friends feel less essential than others. In that case, it's okay to let some of them go and even to create social boundaries, should you start fielding requests from those friends to hang out again.
“I think it’s important to understand where your current needs lie,” says Dr. Franco. “Are they around identity and community, or are they around deep intimacy? Are they around adventure and novelty, or comfort? The answer will be different for every person and can help guide you when you’re deciding whether or not you want to welcome more fringe friends back into your life.”
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