Dunbar’s number and cross-cultural ponderings

Dunbar’s number and cross-cultural ponderings

Robin Dunbar is a renowned anthropologist. I was introduced to his most famous concept last year and it has been on my mind for a while. In essence, he hypothesised that people will tend to have approximately 150 primary, active relationships. This became Dunbar’s Number. That’s not including everyone you’ve ever met, as many of those relationships won’t be currently active; or the number of people Facebook says you have as “friends.” Instead, this is the average amount of people you can maintain meaningful contact with in your active life. He has written loads of research on it, so if you’re interested in delving deeper than my 4 sentence summary, just google it 🙂


What are the implications for this in cross-cultural situations?

The first I can think of is when someone makes a move overseas. Suddenly you have to make new primary relationships – and this may mean letting go of some of your previous ones. It won’t happen instantly of course, but we can go through a grieving process when we start to lose touch with previously close friends. We may go from contacting them weekly to monthly, or even just on a yearly basis on the trip home.

Of course, there is excitement and adventure in connecting with new relationships too. If your 150 active connections are all similar and like-minded to you, there is probably less likelihood of you being expose to new concepts, perspectives and opportunities. Moving to a new country, a new culture, and making relationships with different people can definitely help expand our horizons.

On a more reflective note, one article I came across asked the question, where are you spending the most time? We have limited time and unlimited activities we could do to use that time. Are we focused on being intentional about who our 150 relationships are – do we cultivate them with people who encourage us, or people who drain us? This can be important to be aware of, as being in a new culture already drains our energy as we get used to things. We want to make sure we are investing our time with people who will reinvigorate us.

(Note – this can include people from back home via social media, skype etc, but I have previously fallen into the trap of doing that too much. I now believe this meant I made fewer primary connections in the country I was in at the time; it was a symptom of my culture shock and hindered my transition).

I’m interested to keep thinking through other cross-cultural implications there might be from Dunbar’s Number. Feel free to put suggestions in the comments below and we can brainstorm together.


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