Getting to know Dunbar’s Number

Isn’t it the way? A fortnight ago I’d never heard of Dunbar’s Number “the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”. Now I keep tripping over it.

I’m discovering its nuances…

Swan 1Dunbar’s Number likes routine. Becoming familiar with its characteristics I realise I encounter Dunbar’s Number daily during morning walks around Sydney Park . I’ve been taking the same route at the same time for over a year now. Walking and blogging are twin habits born late in 2011 of my desire to hang onto my sanity. I encounter other sanity & fitness questing people and dogs who espouse the same schedule. It’s a subtle community who recognise familiar faces and react in a variety of ways: look straight ahead; nod; smile; and canine pats & sniffs. One shuffling gent greets everyone with “good morning how are you” and a big smile to which all respond equally cheery. At 7 am, a feat not to be underestimated.

Swan 2Dunbar’s Number has a soft spot for wildlife. The Sydney Park community nurtured the swan family who made the ponds their home for much of 2012. As we watched over the feathered stars with Sir David Attenborough-like zeal, as well as via the Facebook page created in their honour we also managed to communicate the wonder verbally. We presume four of the swans have moved on to other bread scamming locales. The fifth remains, its progress stunted by injuries sustained from dogs who couldn’t read signs prohibiting them from entering the wetlands. If you don’t proffer bread it will happily accept a handful of grass shoots. If you stand quietly and watch, someone may just stand next to you and comment oh it’s still here, oh dear what will become of it…

Dunbar’s Number is kind. Near the end of a walk I noted a familiar little fluffy dog with a perplexed expression and the wrong human adjacent the pond at the three ways. Familiar, because for a year I have witnessed the dog’s human striding along the path 100 metres ahead while Fluffy sniffs faffs locates sprints sniffs faffs locates sprints… That morning something had gone awry but not to worry the wrong human who was also a regular and conferring with several more regulars had the situation under control. As I hit the exit to the park, there was the right human frantically searching for Fluffy with the assistance of her own posse of regulars. “He’s at the pond” was all I needed to say. With a relieved smile and “thank you” echoing “He’s at the pond” to the posse, off she ran.

Dunbar’s Number can be shy. Later the same morning having exchanged sweaty exercise attire for office garb to trot up the hill to the train station among the regulars on that route, I spotted an out of context person who looked very much like Fluffy’s human. We glanced at each other but equally without bearings neither of us was sure enough to do more. Had Fluffy’s escapades that morning changed our timetables and doubled up our Dunbar’s Number connections?

Dunbar’s Number can surprise. The Wiki article on Dunbar’s Number states it “does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship”. Anyone who has been accosted in a pub or supermarket by a school friend from the dark ages will dispute this. I experienced such an occasion many walks ago in a neighbouring area. At 6.00 am I stumbled along attired in unassuming exercise ensemble plus baseball cap & sunglasses in a semblance of walking motion, and heard someone call my name. Thinking it couldn’t possibly be me they wanted, I continued walking. They kept calling louder, insistent enough for me to pay attention from across the street. A former classmate, our association in the past by a quarter of a century and then only by proximity rather than friendship, as it appeared to still be so by her revelation she lived a block away.

Dunbar’s Number is enigmatic. The Wiki article also mentions “A recent study has suggested that Dunbar’s number is applicable to online social networks as well”. Possibly not in the way I experienced while waiting for the train. I was checking out an array of badges on the backpack of a commuter I see regularly. Just as I was puzzling over The Queers I spied a dangling security pass identifying his name as belonging to a short lived boyfriend of my sister, who I was acquainted with only via his comments on her Facebook wall, and her passing confidence. He had no idea who I was. Weird. Very weird.

Dunbar’s Number likes a party. I expect on Sunday evening Dunbar’s Number will need a Berocca and a good night’s sleep after dressing up in fluoro feathers & sequins and perching on a float for the Sydney Mardi Gras 35th Anniversary Festival  which culminates with the traditional street parade on Saturday 2 March evening, from Hyde Park along Oxford Street, Darlinghurst ending at Moore Park Rd.News Local Central

Dunbar’s Number is liberal. Its motto is a variation of Groucho Marx’s famous quote “I don’t care to belong to a club community that accepts only people like me as members”.

24 thoughts on “Getting to know Dunbar’s Number

  1. Maybe I should campaign to rename my small town ‘Dunbar’. It is the kind of place where it takes you an hour to go down the shop for a loaf of bread. We might not know each others name but we are on at least nodding terms with every second person. I know your kids, or your dog, or your huband/wife/nanna…
    I found a stray dog the other day, took it back up the street to the owners mum’s house and dumped him over the fence. Not his home, but I knew he’d get there eventually, and I was in a hurry!

    While some parts/members of society seem to be becoming more insular, other parts seem to be drifting into an unexpected community without even trying don’t they?

    Your ‘Fluffy’ story reminded me of the days when the sons were small and we walked the same walk every day. An elderly lady was one of the regulars and one day she was found on the walk, disoriented, by another regular. If not for their familiarity and the lack of the regular “Morning!” greeting he would have just passed her by. He realized all was not well and managed to quickly get her the help she needed for the stroke she was experiencing. (Dunbar’s number IS kind 🙂 )


    1. The Dunbar-ness of small towns is wonderful… but there has to be an econony of scale… too much Dunbar-ness is not a good thing.
      Maybe humans are pre-wired for Dunbar’s Number. As you say, it appears parts/members of society seem to be becoming more insular but at the same time even though we may be eschewing traditional real time communities, online virtual communities are booming, and I see heaps of adverts for knitting, fitness groups etc.
      When we moved in 2011, I really missed the local shops and residents community of the old neighbourhood. Without me noticing, over 8 years they had become a significant part of my Dunbar’s Number, and when we venture that way, it’s like seeing family!
      18 months along, I experience a more subtle Dunbar’s community in the new neighbourhood probably because there are way more apartment buildings than in the old neighbourhood and the local shops are a little further away. I wonder if cats count in Dunbar’s Number – we pat a lot of them in the neighbourhood, and know some of their owners, which helped when I had a similar situation with a cat found by someone else, as you did with the lost dog.
      Dunbar’s Number rocks!


      1. I think that growing up in a really small town would feel like you never got a moment to yourself, luckily our town is just big enough to get privacy if you want it.

        I think your pre-wiring suggestion is right. No matter where humans are they form groups, the school carpark, prison, tour groups. We might think we can exist on our own but we don’t usually do it by choice do we?

        Funny how you mention not being sure where you know a person from when you see them out of context. One day we were having lunch at the shops and a woman came up and started chatting. She clearly knew who we were and about members of my family. After 5 minutes I still had absolutely no idea who she was. I bit the bullet and apologized and told her I didn’t know who she was. As soon as she said her name I knew why I didn’t have a clue, she is my sisters sister-in-law. I had never seen her outside a family do so to see her at the shops was like seeing her on Mars! 😀


        1. I would never be brave enough to do what your sister’s sister-in-law did… If I’m not sure, I’m good for a vague smile & hello – beyond that I wait & see 🙂


  2. When I worked it was very obvious.
    I’d walk my dogs at the same time each day, bump into the same dogs with their people, we’d exchange pleasantries, the dogs would sniff, and we’d be on our way.
    Later on the bus on my way to work, more familiar faces and just like you have said, some would smile politely, but most had their head in a newspaper, or playing with their phones, but I recognised them and felt like I knew them.
    Since retiring, I have no routine at all, the dogs go out whenever, so I dont see the regular dog walkers. The folk on the bus? Are they still catching that bus, or like me have some of them retired?
    I wonder if they ponder the same.


    1. Those familiar faces give us bearings I think.
      I have that work day/week routine, and when someone I have seen every weekday for years stops being there, I do wonder what the story is. Sometimes I run into them somewhere else, and guess they have moved jobs or house.
      If you revisited your old routine, you would still get the pleasantries and polilte smiles. I think the dog community is very Dunbar’s Number, especially they dogs – they love to sniff and play:)


  3. While I read of your experiences at the Park, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my commutes to the Loop. Whether I took the train, a bus, or over-slept and fought others for a cab, each came with its own group of participants. I doubt any of us spoke; a nod was probably the most we did to engage each other. And if we met outside of our routine, say at a Loop restaurant at lunch, we shared that same look of bewilderment. “Where do I know you from?” For me, the answer didn’t come until the next morning, when I saw the person in her/his normal setting. How dare s/he have a life beyond the bus, cab, or train!


    1. Hah, yes! It’s confusing seeing office colleagues in the neighbourhood, or neighbours in the office precinct… I never know what the appropriate response is… I usually go with a vague nod and smile and leave it up to the other person to respond, or not. I find country life to be so much less confusing… walk along the street, and greet everyone 🙂


    1. Dunbar’s Number will be sleeping off the Mardi Gras today I think, but I’m sure he’ll pop up your way soon… you’ve got work to be done and he loves to pitch in and help especially if there’ll be a housewarming barbie and a few beers on offer later 🙂


  4. It’s funny how things like that happen. The repetition seems to drill it into our head or maybe it’s the desire to apply new knowledge to the world around us? Dunbar isn’t likely to slip my mind after this post. 🙂


    1. Nor mine 🙂 Dunbar’s Number can be a little scary as well. On the weekend the G.O. & I were sitting at a footpath table at a local cafe when were greeted effusively by a passing woman. We returned the greeting effusively enough, but when she had gone, looked at each other and asked “who was that?”… Eventually we deduced we’d never met her but she lives in the apartments across the street from us, her windows facing our balcony. Weird. Very weird…


    1. Thank you. Me neither, until I read the SMH article. Learning about Dunbar’s Number has made me take a closer look at the different relationships I have with people around me. They span further than I’d realised. I wonder if animals count… such as your farmy cast… and the many cats & dogs of my neighbourhood I know by name 🙂


  5. a fascinating post elladee, your illustrations and headings are just perfect … they describe my experiences too … the people who walk on our beach … or swim at the same time, or shop at the Farmer’s Market … and that frustrating trickiness of seeing people out of context … thanks for this discussion and all the riches of community relationship it highlights 🙂


    1. Thank you. I think the post says more about my life that I had realised. I’m a woman of routine! The apartment building we lived in Darlington was a micro community where we didn’t live in each other’s pockets but was appropriately neighbourly. When we go back it’s like going home – everyone stops to chat. I miss that where we are now but I can see there’s still community, just looser and very much operates in context.


  6. I think the community aspect (and possibly the on-line one) is the most interesting aspect of this. There’s the obvious one like the dog walkers, the exercise people, who tend to have routines. The dogs always being better known than the people however. We saw one d/w and his family at the cinema but he didn’t recognise us – sitting on the same row a few seats away. context, context eh? A is out more than me, so people recognise him more.
    But what is funny is when you have become a part of the community because people do greet you, verbally or with a nod, and sometimes stop to chat. And then you see new people, and you all ask each other, who are they? And everyone shrugs their shoulders. How long to break into and become accepted within a community? And how much effort should the newcomer make?

    Sorry too many questions, but they are how my mind spun off thinking about this.


    1. They are good questions. It’s interesting how it evolves. I often find that I feel invisible, then when I’ve been around a while people start to talk to me. Possibly to cope with the transient side of community they don’t want to bother unless you stay around. The depth of the connection we had with the locals of our old neighbourhood surprised me we had to move.
      I cheated slightly at the new apartment, and made sure everyone we encountered knew we were rentng from my sister, who had lived there previously, which gave us a little more weight.
      A and the G.O. have that in common, we encounter so many more people who know him than me, from times long & near past and also around the neighbourhoods. I’m probably generic in appearance with many other forty-something blonde women… I’m often the recipient of great affection from 2 greyhounds whose owner tells me it’s because I look like his wife.


    1. Thank you 🙂 Community with a common frame of reference and memory provides a comfortable and familiar base … it’s getting the balance right with new and stimulating that’s tricky 🙂


  7. I really enjoyed your post, especially the story of the out-of-place dog. I’ve just learned of Dunbar’s Number myself, and suddenly I see it everywhere!


    1. Thank you 😉 Dunbar’s Number is a funny beast… it’s like it wants us to know that it can change with us and adapt to any sort of community we find ourselves part of 🙂


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