• T. W. Emory

“You’re a nice guy, but I actually only have three friends..."

In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry fends off the overtures of a would-be friend by saying, “You’re a nice guy, but I actually only have three friends. I really can’t handle any more.”

Apparently, for most of us there are only so many people any of us can keep fairly good track of and draw close to in a meaningful way. Simply put, we face mental, emotional and physical limitations that determine the number of our social relationships, and just how many people we can effectually interact with and influence, or be influenced by in turn. Even if we regularly assemble with hundreds or even thousands, arguably most of us can only significantly affect a percentage of them.

A British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, examined social groupings throughout history that had strong incentives to stick together and came to the conclusion that the number 150 is about the human limit of how many stable social relationships one human can handle—i.e. a relationship in which you know each person and how he or she relates to the others. And interestingly, despite the social networking made possible in this digital age, some argue that the “saturation point” for “friends” is indeed between 100 and 200.

It surely boils down to how we personally choose to define “friend”, as to whether or not we actually have 150 “friends” or ‘only three,’ in the sense we mean. If by “friend” we think in terms of acquaintance, contact, associate, or colleague, then between 100 and 200 might be doable. But if by “friend” we mean intimate, confidant, or one to whom we can tell most anything, then our mental, emotional and physical limitations would surely confine us to but a handful at best—and in that case then, Jerry Seinfeld’s claim of being able to handle “only…three friends” is close to spot-on.

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