What is the radius of your social circle?

Just want to share this brilliant matemathical social life metaphor by Mathematician Cartoonist* Ben Orlin of Math with Bad Drawings, illustrating what a “social circle” looks like on paper.

Social circle Ben Orlin

I quite like the symbolism and its implications:

The social people

People who have large social circles, have plenty of space at their disposal inside their circle. It gives them flexibility, mobility and dynamism, and exposes them to the inputs and perspectives of different people (although people inside social circles tend to be somewhat culturally alike, or at least compatible).

People with large social circles can cover a lot of ground and have many resources of whatever they need within their circle. They know a tons of people who can tip them off to opportunities they hadn’t even thought of, connect them up with useful people, and explain the complicated political insider dynamics of specific social groups and organisation. Also, they’ll typically have had ample social skills practice for many years.

People with large social circles probably don’t need to venture out of their circles often, but due to their extensive practice in navigating social networks, may find it relatively easy to do so, or to expand or alter their circle when they need it.

Radius zero

In contrast, a social circle with a radius of zero is a small and inflexible space. It tends to be more static than dynamic, there aren’t many fresh inputs and blending of perspectives, and not many opportunities dropping by. Outings are lone expeditions, like walking around in a circle, meeting no one, and ending back at start. The boundary is uncomfortably close, like right outside the window, exposing the loneliness to random strangers if the pay attention (they usually don’t).

Loneliness is seen as a mark of dysfunction in society. It signals that “This person is not good enough for anyone in the world”. So a social circle with a radius of Zero has a stigma attached to it, casting a shadow over it.

A circle with a radius of zero isn’t even a real circle (as the person in the third frame of the cartoon pedantically points out), more like a fuzzy dot. If a circle frames space, connections and movement along with social culture, then a dot is just one point thick with content. A rich but desolate culture empowered by imagination, sensations, personality, expanding forever like a Univers without boundaries.

The world outside can seem like a confusing & alien place where people hurry past in a blur, always on their ways to somewhere else, always with busy plans together with others. Unpredictable hostility can be expected, because someone who is having a bad day will prefer to pour their S### out on someone else who is not in their circle of friends – ideally, who is not in anyone’s circle of friends – because that person is powerless in a social sense, with no friends to retaliate on their behalf (s####### on people isn’t of course usually consciously planned, more intuition driven than rationally calculated).

Solitude can be meaningful and valuable, temporary isolation can be character building, and it is perfectly possible to be lonely in the midst of a large social circle. However, a social circle with a chronic radius of zero is restricting, like a prison. The social circle boundary is like a glass wall: you can see other people talking and having fun with their friends outside, but you can’t reach anyone. Other peoples’ social circle boundaries are like glass walls too, keeping you out even if you manage to get past your own glass wall. That’s what makes loneliness seem so hopeless when you’re trapped in it. Whenever you manage to force yourself to get past your own wall and try to meet others, immature and overwhelmed and all, then you are faced with a world full of other peoples’ walls, social circles overlapping with each other but shielding you out.

Also, with a social circle radius of zero, there is no pre-screening of strangers who could be potential friends, but could also be predators. That makes the whole try-to-make-a-friend business more vulnerable and risky.

Humans are social creatures. We need others not only for companionship, belonging, and social identity development (although that’s vital for most people), but also to have someone to support us through crises and care when we’re unwell … so that we may survive even our worst times. As Paul of “Aspergers from the inside“** says: “Friends are not optional”.


A radius of one

Perhaps the best about the radius = zero metaphor, is that it hints at the life changing impact that just one individual can have on another, by creating that circle, even if it isn’t big. There is a fundamental difference between radius = 0 and radius = 1. The blurry dot transforms into a circle, and the advantages of a social circle begin to come to life.

That one person can be a friend, a spouse, or sometimes even a pet. My social circle has a radius of approximately one if only humans count, but I count my dogs too, so that’s … several. It is a tiny social circle by some standards, but it is a great improvement and fundamental change from a social circle with radius = 0, which characterised most of my adult life, most of the time (there weren’t Internet friends either, since most of it was in the period before the Internet took off).

When I say my circle is small, I’m of course ignoring the Internet. A social circle defined as “a group of socially interconnected people” includes acquaintances, I suppose, and… perhaps networks of Internet acquaintances with whom one interacts regularly online***, although that’ll stretch the metaphor quite a bit.


*like e.g. “African American”, but with mathematics and drawing instead of countries

** I warmly recommend Paul’s YouTube channel for aspies/auties, and anyone who’d like insight into aspects and challenges of the Asperger Syndrome, or whatever people prefer to call it these days

***I suppose theoretically even a facebook group where many of the members have befriended each other (on facebook) can count as a social circle when defined as “a group of socially interconnected people”, but… That’s not the conventional meaning of a social circle


2 thoughts on “What is the radius of your social circle?

  1. GratefulGirl

    Thank you- I love this. Love- and appreciate- now having the phrase of “radius zero” to replace what I have previously been referring to as “The Alone.” Would it be okay to refer to/reblog (I’m new here and still figuring things out) this at some point during this coming week? I’m working on something about about my own struggles with deep introversion, a rough custody schedule, and a complete ineptitude in dating/meeting people, conditions that are favorable for periods of stifling isolation and loneliness, for existing in a radius zero life. Referring to this would be an insightful springboard into that exploration. Again, thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person


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