June 5, 2020

Recently, a friend named Andy voiced out a “major” problem that had been giving him sleepless nights. He wanted to throw a massive birthday party once the circuit breaker was lifted, but his plans soon became a pipe dream when the government announced that phase two would only allow social gatherings of up to five people.

That number is perfectly fine if you are a misanthrope or a loner who has a robot in place of friends. But for a social butterfly like Andy, this was a problem more dire than the US-China trade war. “I have so many friends, so who am I supposed to invite?” he said. I don’t want to have multiple parties; I want a big one so I can show my haters how awesome I am.” With a social media following in the thousands, the prospect of not being able to ring in his 35th birthday with swathes of people was more frightening than Covid-19 itself. There isn’t an easy solution to Andy’s conundrum. And as we start to emerge from isolation, we, like Andy, are now forced to reexamine our social life.

Since phase two may kick in before the end of June, this precarious game of social exclusion can potentially create a host of problems for us. Inevitably, we run the risk of displeasing friends who are not selected to be part of this coveted clique. In my posse of seven, who will be the unfortunate two to be left out of outings? Do we have to resort to drawing virtual straws or perhaps cancel gatherings altogether just to avoid offending anyone? Let’s say you’re on the receiving end. Would getting an invite inflate our self-importance, knowing that you are one of the chosen few? Although groups are generally formed around a common identity and shared values, there are still those that discriminate against the undeserving and brandish privilege and power by drawing clear boundaries to shut others out.

I recall the days in an all-girls school and how the cliquish nature of female groups always came with some level of ostracism. If you got an invitation to a party, you were deemed worthy enough to be part of the gang. The criteria were largely based on whether you participated in a cool CCA, wore limited edition Adidas Superstar sneakers, had the latest Nokia cellphone and got dropped off by dad in a Maserati. This time around, I assume that the adult version would be more straightforward like the KonMari method: Does this person spark joy in my life? 

There are upsides to this 5-person rule. It has given us an excuse not to feel rejected when we see photographic evidence of a dinner that we didn’t get invited to. Even if there is a slight stinging sensation in our hearts, we can reassure ourselves that the problem doesn’t lie with us. There simply wasn’t enough space. Another positive outcome of having smaller group gatherings is the opportunity to form a more intimate bond through group conversations or tête-à-têtes. Large social gatherings like alumni mixers tend to drown out your voice (if you are an introvert) and chatter is always limited to mundane weather talk and salacious gossip about other people.

Smaller hangouts act as an antidote to detoxify negative relationships when we become acutely aware of who we want to be around. Having a tighter circle of high-quality friends is far more enriching than 5,000 Facebook acquaintances who only see the filtered side of you. It’s priceless when you are seenheard and understood on a deeper level by a handful who allow you to be yourself without judgement. You can be untrammelled in the sharing of your hopes, dreams, fears, secrets, and not have to adjust certain aspects of your personality to gel with others. Logistically, it is also less of a nightmare to corral everyone together because there are fewer schedules to coordinate.

Thankfully, we don’t have to feel guilty anymore for turning down tiresome events that we once felt obliged to attend. It could be a distant cousin’s birthday party, your colleague’s baby shower or a secondary school classmate’s wedding (whom you have drifted apart). No more insufferable four-hour Chinese wedding banquet dinners, while being entertained by the couple’s ingratiatingly sweet childhood pictures. Or pretending to coo over wailing babies that grate like nails on a chalkboard. 

Once Covid-19 has passed, I believe that we will learn to go for quality over quantity and be more unapologetic about saying “no” to the people who do not add value to our lives. Perhaps when I see Andy at his birthday party, I shall remind him that he doesn’t need a lot of friends, just a few good ones.