Season 2 Episode 15

Hello and welcome to Ethos English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. I’m your host Sean and over the next ten minutes I’m going to help you expand your productive vocabulary so that you can become a more confident and fluent English speaker. This week I’m going to be talking about what’s known as a friendship recession. I came across this concept in an article I read in the Guardian newspaper, called Some weeks I only speak to the postman’: how to escape learned loneliness – and soar socially. Now, remember, this and all other resources I mention are linked in the show notes available at What’s more, the show notes include a full text version of the entire episode.   

Firstly, what is a recession? It’s not something we would typically associate with friendship, hence my question. A recession is a period when the economy of a country is not successful and conditions for business are bad. In other words, a recession is a time when an economy stops growing or even contracts. So here, the idea of a friendship recession is that our relationships are somehow in decline or in crisis. 

Anita Chaudhuri, the author of the aforementioned article, begins her article with a brief interview with a woman in her 40’s by the name of Jeni who moved back to rural Devon after having spend years living elsewhere. She was expecting to be able to revive the friendships she’d had as a younger woman, but rebuilding her social life turned out to be rather difficult. I’m going to quote directly from the article, as Chaudhuris’ word choice is great. She writes “something slowly began to dawn on Jeni: she no longer had a social life.” I love this phrasal verb “dawn on”, because it contains such a vivid metaphor. If something dawns on you, you realise it for the first time. And the metaphor is of the sun rising at dawn, and here, the morning light represents you finally realising or understanding a situation. 

So, after it finally dawns on Jeni that she’s got no social life to speak of, she decides to take matters into her own hands and do something about the situation by setting up a tarot group that meets up in her home. The expression take matters into your own hands means to deal with a problem yourself because other people have failed to deal with it or because you’re the only person able to solve it.

Jeni’s story of social isolation is not a one-off example, that is, hers is not a unique situation. Indeed, there are reliable statistics that bear out this hypothesis that society is, on the whole, becoming less social. The article What Is a Friendship Recession and Why Are We Currently In One? published by Reader’s Digest refers to a survey in 2021 among Americans that found that the number of men with at least six close friends dropped from 55% to 27%, and that the number of men who claimed to have not a single close friend increased five-fold, from 3% to 15%. What’s more, other data put out by the Washington Post shows that the time Americans spend with close friends has plummeted, that is, has decreased suddenly and dramatically. Ten years ago people spent, on average, six and a half hours a week with close friends, whereas in 2021 that figure had dropped to a mere 2 hours and 45 minutes. 

Now, I want to return to the headline of the Guardian article, “how to escape learned loneliness”. This is an interesting variation on the psychological concept of learned helplessness, which is defined in an article from Psychology Today in the following way: 

“Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so. For example, a smoker may repeatedly try and fail to quit. He may grow frustrated and come to believe that nothing he does will help, and therefore he stops trying altogether. The perception that one cannot control the situation essentially elicits a passive response to the harm that is occurring.” 

This concept was developed back in 1967 by the American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, as a result of experiments in which they gave dogs electric shocks. I know, that sounds awful. Anyway, the dogs were unable to escape these shocks and later on, when these same dogs were given the opportunity to physically move away from the source of these shocks they didn’t do so. They’d accepted their suffering and no longer sought a way out. Interestingly, Martin Seligman later did research confirming the converse: we can tell ourselves a new, more empowering story that allows us to take matters into our own hands and this is what’s called learned optimism.

Now, returning to the Guardian article and the idea of learned loneliness. It’s basically the idea that because of circumstances – remember that lovely thing called the pandemic? – we’ve become used to being more isolated. It’s not that we’re consciously choosing to socialise less, it’s that we’ve just gradually lost the habit. This very ordinary fact, that seems almost too obvious to bother mentioning, is leading to more suffering than we realise.

At the end of Chaudhuri’s article she focuses on how to unlearn loneliness. She reminds us of Aristotle’s division of friendships into three categories, namely friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of virtue. Friends of utility might be acquaintances, such as neighbours, who you interact with for mundane reasons and with whom you might exchange mutual favours like collecting each other’s mail when the other one’s on vacation, and so on. Friendships of pleasure are people with whom you enjoy doing certain activities, like doing sport, and friendships of virtue are those people with whom you develop a deep bond and in whom you might confide your deepest, darkest secrets.

I think most people would tend to say that friends of virtue are clearly the most valuable type of friend, but Chaudurhi actually makes the case that we should be more open to casual friendships through things like volunteering and improv or language classes where there’s lots of interaction among strangers. I must admit I’m not entirely convinced. I recently went to an improv event here in Barcelona – I used to go all the time pre-pandemic – and quite frankly I found most of the people there a bit irritating. But Chaudurhi also mentions a curious psychological phenomenon called “mere exposure”. This principle is so-called because human beings tend to like other human beings the more they are exposed to them. In other words, the more time we spend with people the more likely we are to like them. So she would tell me to go back to the same improv event again for the next few months and report back to her before ruling out the possibility of making friends there. Hmm, maybe I will take this hypothetical advice!

Perhaps an even more important argument of Chaudurhi’s is that we tend to underestimate the impact of casual social interactions with people like our neighbours, that is minor social interactions that we wouldn’t even consider socialising. I’ve noticed recently that on days when I’m working from home and am only interacting with people by email or instant messaging, well, I get a bit grumpy. Actually, more than a bit. And on days when I’m at home alone feeling like this and I bump into my upstairs neighbour, for instance when I’m up on the roof hanging my laundry, well our brief chats somehow leave me feeling a lot more cheerful. 

The funny thing is, my neighbour is not someone I would ever choose as a friend. He’s what you might call a curmudgeon, that is someone old who is often annoyed or angry. He loves to gossip about the other tenants in our apartment building and he does most of the talking. He’s a guardia civil, which is a police corps associated with the Franco dictatorship. He loves telling people what to do and is clearly used to getting his way. He’s even admitted he has a hidden camera to keep track of our comings and goings. Crazy, right? And yet talking to him is somehow still enjoyable. And despite his quirks, over the years I’ve known him he’s done me a lot of favours and has actually been a very considerate neighbour. Now, I suppose this is like folk wisdom, this idea that chatting with your neighbours is a good thing, regardless of who they happen to be. 

If you found today’s topic interesting you might enjoy episode 9 from season 1 entitled Is text messaging killing your relationships? In that episode I go into media theory and the brilliant ideas of Marshall McLuhan.

Before I go over today’s vocabulary, let me remind you that I send out a monthly newsletter with a Quizlet flashcard set to help you memorise the vocabulary covered in each episode. All you have to do is go to the show notes at and you’ll be prompted to sign up. Also, if you’re interested in more content feel free to follow me on Instagram at EthosEnglishWithSean. Now, let’s get to today’s vocabulary.

a recession: a period when the economy of a country is not growing and may be contracting during which conditions for business are bad

The recession has led to many small businesses going bankrupt.

hence (formal) that is the reason or explanation for, note that it is followed by a noun or noun phrase

His mother was Italian, hence his name – Luca.

aforementioned (formal) adjective – mentioned earlier

In addition to the aforementioned film projects, Elliott has appeared in two TV comedies.

dawn on: If a fact dawns on you, you understand it after a period of not understanding it

I was about to pay for the shopping when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d left my wallet at home.

no … to speak of: very little of something or a very small thing

There’s been no rain to speak of for several months.

take matters into your own hands: deal with a problem yourself because the people who should have dealt with it have failed to do so

When the police failed to catch her son’s murderer, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

This is not a one-off example.: Used to talk about a phenomenon that is not unique, that is, there are other similar cases.

News reports emerged yesterday on the killing of an unarmed black man by police. Sadly this is not a one-off example.

bear out: phrasal verb – if facts or information bear out a claim, story, opinion, etc, they help to prove that it is true

Evidence bears out the idea that students learn best in small groups.

His version of events just isn’t borne out by the facts.

-fold: a suffix meaning a particular number of times

The value of the house has increased fourfold in the last ten years (= that is, it is now worth four times as much as it was ten years ago).

plummet: ​​fall or decrease very suddenly and dramatically

Profits plummeted from £49 million to £11 million.

mere: used to emphasise that something is not large or important

She lost the election by a mere 20 votes.

the converse: (formal) the converse of a fact, word, statement, etc. is the opposite of it

In the US, you drive on the right-hand side of the road, but in the UK the converse applies.

curmudgeon: (old-fashioned) an old person who is often in a bad mood

What a selfish old curmudgeon he had been, always thinking of himself and his own likes and dislikes!

As always, thank you for listening. If you want to get in touch with feedback or questions send me an email to

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