Rent-a-friend services have been booming during the pandemic, but can it be genuine if one of you is parting with their cash?
We’re just over a year into the pandemic and for many of us, lockdown has consisted of Netflix binges, self-reflection, soda bread, and on a bleaker note, crippling loneliness.
This year’s ONS report, which assessed data from October 2020 to February 2021, found that 3.7 million adults in the UK felt “often” or “always” lonely, explaining that their well-being had been affected by loneliness due to the pandemic. Gen Zers and millennials made up the highest rates, especially those living in urban areas on the outskirts of cities.
I reached what I felt was my peak of loneliness this month, after my flatmate tested positive for Covid. Within a day, all plans were cancelled, and we were sucked into our box bedrooms in East London, not to cross paths again for ten days. I craved conversation but was wary of burdening friends with facetimes when they had their own worries. Besides, most people I know are so over virtual meets that they point-blank refused to switch IRL plans for Zoom.
I’d heard of a website called ‘Rent a Friend’, but had never considered using it myself. Now, at this low point in my lockdown loneliness, I decided to dive in and see what it was about. I was soon introduced to a man named George*.
George likes: art, literature, cinema and writing on his vintage typewriter. We agreed to make some lunch together over Zoom. I opened the conversation confidently as though he were an old schoolmate and was amazed at how quickly we interacted with each other as ‘friends’, although it’s hard to tell if that’s part of the transaction, seeing as the job is to be the perfect pal for the day.
There was something comforting about having a companion on the other side of the screen while doing menial tasks like making a sandwich. We talked animatedly about our ideas for film scripts and our interest in the bizarre (like the paranormal and aliens), plus the fact that my kitchen sink broke twice in a week. There were, luckily, no awkward moments as we chatted between mouthfuls of bread and tea.
It's not just me who has considered renting friends. Since the pandemic began, the company’s user base has increased by 20%. With virtual meet-ups actively encouraged on the website from a Covid-secure perspective, I can’t help but see another positive from a personal safety angle too. Perhaps this is a new opportunity to connect to others without the vulnerability of meeting randomers off the internet, and a chance to forge bonds in safer ways.
Paying for companionship is a difficult concept, and one that surely becomes more complicated as time goes on. How much of your real self do you exchange for cash – are you merely an actor playing the part of a perfect mate? Can it ever be a genuine friendship if one of you is paying? It makes me question whether this kind of friendship is ever truly balanced, especially with the notion that your pal can ‘take flight’ as soon as you stop entering your card details. True friendship is built on loyalty, shared experiences and compassion, but is there loyalty when your friendship is your business?
”Using the site is a good way for me to maintain some form of socialisation. I can use Rent a Friend to talk about my day, life, dreams etc and I really like getting advice from other people” – Paul*
“I work for a call centre, so my days are usually made up of upset customers,” explains Paul*, who has been paying for friends for two years now. “I don’t have many friends because of my work schedule, and I’ve been working from home since Covid. I live alone and the few friends I do have, I haven’t seen in over a year. I’m still concerned about Covid, so I prefer to stay at home and converse on the phone with friendly people from the site instead.”
“I’m a homebody,” he continues. “When the pandemic struck, I hate to say this, but I kind of enjoyed being home. I’m not a fan of working in an office and hope I can continue working from home even after the pandemic is over. Using the site is a good way for me to maintain some form of socialisation. I can use Rent a Friend to talk about my day, life, dreams etc and I really like getting advice from other people.”
Does it bother him that he’s paying people for their friendship? “Yes and no. I kind of like paying because I don’t feel so guilty asking for advice.” When I ask if he’d ever tell people he rents friends, he’s very clear on the matter: “No one knows and I do not plan on telling anyone.”
I ask George for his thoughts on renting out his friendship. “It’s a very futuristic approach,” he says. “Initially I felt immoral doing it, people shouldn’t have to pay for friends. I joined because I was curious, I didn’t actually get any messages for two years until the pandemic hit.” His first meet-up was with an elderly man in his 70s. When the time came for payment, George tried to decline the £50.
“I had a good time!” he explains. “Nice conversation, nice tea… I felt bad accepting money on top, but he got very strange about it and was adamant I would be paid for my time. (Rent a Friend customers are) always ‘normal’ people but it’s like society has rejected them and now they feel that this is the only way. It almost feels like they’re buying confidence. Even if they don’t seem to be lacking it, something about payment means they can do anything or say anything they want and not feel bad about taking up someone’s time or worry about judgement.”
33-year-old Jack moved to London three months before the pandemic hit. “I knew two people in the entire country,” he tells me. “I was under quarantine for a while and living on my own gets lonely fast. I thought about getting a pet, but I didn’t think that would be fair when the pandemic ended. I signed up because I wanted to venture out, meet new people and break into new social circles. I have some unique hobbies – crypto currency and computer programming, mostly AI – and I wanted to find new people to share them with as I’ve bored my old friends to death talking about them. Paying for friendship did bother me at first, but I kind of look at it like any other service. You pay to get medical advice, for someone to clean your apartment... why not pay someone to socialise with, learn new perspectives, and meet cool new people at the same time? I feel that every person has a unique story to tell, and I have no problem compensating them to learn more.”
“Society is disappointing and terrible. Renting friendship personifies how normal interactions are failing to exist nowadays” – George
“Society is disappointing and terrible,” says George. “Renting friendship personifies how normal interactions are failing to exist nowadays. Are companies renting out friendship part of the problem, though? Not at all. I mean, after all, you're making people happy and they’re reaching out to you for your service in the first place. It’s mutual. But absolutely it feels like an episode of Black Mirror.”
While paying for friendship admittedly does highlight our lockdown loneliness, it makes me feel relieved and unashamed to hear how similar other people’s experiences are too. Deep down we all crave companionship and the relief that we’re not boring our friends to death. If a site like Rent a Friend can give you happiness, companionship and new experiences, then why not? As my conversation with George came to a close, nearly three and a half hours after it began, we agreed we should hang out in real life. I was concerned I’d unwittingly locked myself into a paid friendship and had become his new client, but he assured me that this time, it would be on the house.
*Names have been changed