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Life a Series of Hellos and Goodbyes

by on June 02, 2014 7:05 AM

"So many faces in and out of my life,

Some will last, some will just be now and then.

Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes

I'm afraid it's time for goodbye again"

I remember when I first heard those lyrics in Billy Joel's 1976 song "Goodbye to Hollywood" it made me feel sad. I was a teenager and thought my friends and my family would always be a part of my circle and couldn't imagine what he meant.

And then life happened. Graduation. College. New friends. Fewer contacts with old friends. First and second and third jobs and new work friends. Neighbors and friends in new places. New friends when I moved back to State College. Friends or family whose job or family obligations takes them away. A co-worker who leaves to take a new job. The new co-worker who takes her place. Making new contacts through professional activities and hobbies and recreation interests. A rift or a misunderstanding with a friend. The death of a loved one.

Life really is a series of hellos and goodbyes.

I've been thinking a lot about that Billy Joel song this past month. Meeting a new friend through professional consulting in Florida, who, if she lived closer, would likely be one of my besties. Celebrating good-byes and graduation with my daughter and the families of the girls we have come to know during their four years at Penn State. The declining health of the father of my best friend from high school. An old friend whose decisions seem to be sending a message about the value of our friendship.

Hellos and goodbyes.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has developed a theory about our social network skills which suggests that human beings are comfortable with about 150 people in our contact groups. Dunbar based his theory on our primate cousins, our brain size and our ability to manage what he called "social grooming."

Using the concepts of obligation and reciprocity to define the term "friendship", Dunbar's Number, as it is called, suggests that on average, our brains are incapable of managing more than 150 people in our social circles. (Random meetings or people with whom we are acquainted but do not make the deeper connection do not count in the 150.)

Noting that historically clans and tribes tended to split off when their numbers grew bigger than 150, Dunbar further found that the threshold for relationship satisfaction and connection in current groupings like the military and in business was remarkably similar.

The examples he uses to support his theory make a pretty strong argument. The military is huge but individual units or companies function best at around 150. In an early study in England, prior to the advent of social networking, Dunbar even found that, on average, people send about 150 Christmas cards. The Gore-TEX company believes so strongly in the Dunbar Number that their management policy is to build a new factory or additional location when product demand requires more than 150 workers in a setting rather than just expand the numbers over the 150 threshold.

We can only manage so many people in our lives.

What about those people who claim 1,100 "friends" on Facebook? Interestingly, researchers have applied the Dunbar Number theory to social networks like Facebook and have found that even with a listing of "friends" in the 1000s, social media users generally stay in contact and manage real relationships with only 150 of their technological friends.

Human beings are interesting creatures.

While we understand that some shy or more introverted people may feel more comfortable below the 150 number and extroverts and our more gregarious friends and neighbors may be able to manage above 150, the rest of us start to twitch or stress when our networks get too big.

What does that mean for us as we interact with friends and family and co-workers? Are we somehow closed to new friends until we have some open spaces? Do we allow (or even push?) old friends out of the way to make room for people on the roster? Do factors like social status or our need for affiliation or our age, gender or socio-economic status impact who and how many we allow in our circle?

It appears that maintaining a comfortable network may actually be a series of hellos and goodbyes.

The number of contacts in our social basket goes up and down with the addition new people and the loss of others. When we leave high school or go to college or move to a new town, our number may dip below 150. As we start to develop new relationships and new friendships, the number goes back up again. Some people – our parents, our spouses, our kids – stay in our 150 forever .

So, what's the lesson? What does it mean? It means that once again we learn that life is not static. Life is a process. Through birth and death, new friends and old friends, new situations and new geography, the only thing in life that is constant is change. Our excitement at meeting new people goes hand in hand with evolving friendships, the cycle of life and a shifting of those who we include in our social groups.

Hellos and goodbyes.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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