Friday, June 23, 2006

Are we getting lonelier?

Pretty interesting article posted to MetaFilter today: Social Isolation in U.S. Growing; Study Says

Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide, according to a comprehensive new evaluation of the decline of social ties in the United States.

A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.

The comprehensive new study paints a sobering picture of an increasingly fragmented America, where intimate social ties -- once seen as an integral part of daily life and associated with a host of psychological and civic benefits -- are shrinking or nonexistent. In bad times, far more people appear to suffer alone.

More interesting than the story, which talked about the fact that people are lonelier but didn't explore the causes, is the discussion that ensued. Here are a few quotes:
We've been entrained (yes, I just got done watching Century of the Self) to shop for the best everything for ourselves;

Our individual roles in society are more than ever defined by how we make and spend money. And, both activities lead to isolation as we compete with each other to get it and then insist on defining our own self-created, self-occupied realities by how we spend it. As we are constantly informed by the manufacturers of everything from deodorant to cars: it's all about me! me! me! and the collarary of course is screw you, you, and you.

Heh, no I'm not bitter, I just think it's obvious that people are made relational (most anyway) and the aquisition of things is replacing the personal enrichment and validation we might otherwise get from relationships with others who may even be different from ourselves. Instead of opening up to people and asking for support we go to the mall and buy clothes, electronics, and or excess food. It's sorta like masturbation as opposed to sex with a real human. It's easier, we're in control, and it's far less messy but ultimately hollow.
posted by scheptech at 2:09 PM AST o
and this:

A true friend is the greatest of all blessings, and that which we take the least care of all to acquire.

Francois de La Rochefoucauld
To acquire or to keep: friendship, like marriage, is more a matter of hard work than leisure and ease. Well met is not necessarily long kept. I have friends I have known for decades who have no other friends they have known for more than a year or two. People clutch at friendships like straws and yet, once have grasped them, drop them a week or month later for whoever is shiny and new. It's very sad to see how disposable we all have become to each other.
posted by y2karl at 2:15 PM AST on June 23
And a bit of a thought about how technology might be shaping our attitudes:
Didn't RTFA (and I'm not caught up on the thread), but my thought is that as technologies improve (TiVo, caller ID, etc.), we're able to focus more on familiar media, content, and people and filter out the random noise (lousy primetime TV, unrecognized caller ID, etc.). I never watch live TV anymore, preferring instead to watch programs that my TiVo has culled from my predetermined preferences.

In general, this is a good thing. It's now easy to keep in touch with "close" friends across the country and, generally speaking, across the globe, via a select list on an instant messager, VoIP, or e-mail. But in doing so, we often shut ourselves off to the noise of strangers, neighbors, and such.

Metafilter: There is Good Stuff in the noise.

Actually, this group is the closest to a bunch of random cool people that a lot of us have. Awwww, group hug!
posted by LordSludge at 2:24 PM AST on June 23
This is quite interesting to me. We've learned to go shopping for everything, and perhaps don't have any other frame of mind to use when interacting with people, since it's become so pervasive. One take:
It's commercialism in a broad sense. Whatever times and places there have been in people's lives for doing something non-commercial, have been squeezed out, paved over, charged for.

Notice how many of the meeting places mentioned have as their primary purpose buying or selling something - coffee shops, bookstores, other stores.

Religion used to be a major non-commercial semi-public space (in some sense) for a much wider range of people. Now as said upthread, religion fills the role mainly for conservatives or right-wingers. It depended on dogmas and rules such that when people abandoned them (for good reasons), the community factor went too.

There's also a division between single life and family life - the culture (here in USA anyway) makes single life a temporary condition, people pair off and disappear from the group of friends until it fades away; then families tend to be insular.

Most of my social interaction has been workplace-connected in recent years...

The communitarians have not been helpful. All they've come up with is trying to articficially manufacture a sense of community with totalitarian zoning laws.

The best hope, it seems to me, is in diminishing the influence of business (esp. corporations) in all areas of life.

Anyone who's read the Bowling Alone book, did the author identify a main cause, and what if anything did he recommend?
Is it in the best interests of business to have people spend less time with each other, or alone? Aloneness can induce unhappiness in most people, save the staunch introverts, and television and media tell us to buy things to relieve this sense. To consume is to indicate your agreeing to the rules. Someone sitting on a park bench by himself watching people go by is probably a weirdo or a pervert. Someone sitting on a park bench sipping a Tim Hortons(TM) coffee is just a perfectly normal fellow. Continuous TV ads showing kids eating candy and being happy in our childhood, through those idiotic mentos ads showing people interacting in quirky, funny ways, but only while consuming a product, are perhaps more insidiously effective at stigmatizing non-consumption than we might want to believe.

It's been famously stated that even Americans' leisure time is simply dominated by activities designed to spend themoney they worked so hard to make during teh week.

I'm going to lift the phrase 'Creative Loafing' from the name of a Southern US alternative newspaper to describe any act that has no cost or value, and might help a person pierce the bubble that's trapping them telling them they're unhappy and need this one more thing to finaly stop feeling empty.

By al - 8:14 p.m. |

TV programs appeal each to a different member of a four person family. Mom, dad, son, daughter watch their own thing on thier own TV or by themselves on the big TV. That has to be a factor in growing up alone with a TV.

Then groups of similiar TV fans show up at University, or the bar, or wherever people watch TV together; they are usually all the same group.

So, my solution is a broadly appealing show like Mutula of Omaha's Wild kingdom. That was social glue.
That sort of makes me feel guilty about slagging American Idol..
North America is socially isolated because of our technology. As much as it is beneficial it can also lead to situations where our youths have more virtual than real friends.

Now, I'm not one to comment really. I'm a loner by nature. I can count all my friends on both hands.

I always go back to it cause 'Nam was really a fresh start for me. Asia is all about social interaction. It comes from a society that places family at the forefront - not just the nuclear family. My wife is completely comfortable with socializing with anyone in the village, as do most Vietnamese. I'd say it's pretty difficult to be an introvert when there are so many people around. You *have* to interact with them to go about your daily life. There is no social barrier. No technology to shield you. There's less stratification. There's the 90% poor and 10% rich. So for the most part they're all on the same level. Things aren't measured in material goods as much because people don't have the money.

As an example, my cousin thought that I was a freak because I don't know the names of my neighbours, or know much about their family life. He thought it very strange that we go to work, come home, and are pretty much secluded form the neighbourhood. I told him it was normal. See? That's how isolated we are.

There is no neighbourhood social glue. Indeed if one were to be chatty one could be considered nosy because of the social constructs of our society. We're conditioned to value the self above all.

I'm not saying Asian society is better (there are cons to the family first ideal as well). Just wanted to contrast with what I've learned.
I've heard from people living in Asian countries that there's a flip side to that, that if you lose touch with your family, or move away from your home town, that it is incredibly difficult to forge close friendships to the point where you could talk about important personal problems with them. Lots of chatting and apparently rampant gossip, but very little real personal connections outside of one's family.
... I'm mostly referring to people who've spent time in South Korea and Japan, and it maybe be a phenomenon specifically among males.
I don't know enough about Korea. But from from an outsider looking in, judging through their entertainment media alone, the Japanese male/female divide is spookay. And I'll always find their fetishizing of the young to be very uncomfortable.

And about 'Nam, the countryside is cool. The 2 big cities are similar to the business side of Asia. Profit. Profit. Profit.

I'd say you're correct on males in general. You chicks are better with the friends thing. We've got nothing to offer. But you're all soft and have boobs. Mammaries for the win!
I think trying to deduce the cause is a very complex undertaking as I think there are a number of forces at work here.

The first thing that comes to mind is telling kids "Don't talk to strangers". That teaches people at a very young age that taking to people they don't know is bad. This leads to people avoiding others people.

I was talking to a friend's parents and he was telling how foster parents don't teach the children under their care to drive. Apparently, a foster child sued his/her foster parents and child services and since then no one does it anymore in fear of being sued. The litegation-happy ways in North America seem to stop people from doing just about everything. Warnings on McDonalds coffee cups, disclaimers on plastic bags. I found it pretty disheartening that the Canadian government wants to pass laws that just improving your car's performance is reason enough to take your car away. The general "if I do this something bad will happen" sentiment prevents people in North America from reaching out to others.

On the Asian front, family is very important. Family comes first. Where families in Asian tend to be pretty large (cousins and extended family are usually included as family). While I don't want to say Tuan's family in 'nam is different, I think rurual Asia is much different than urban Asia. When I'm in Hong Kong visiting family, much of the big city stuff still applies: don't talk to strangers on the bus/subway/etc, mind your own business and don't interfere with others, and so on. As Al points out, family (and family friends) IS your circle. Outside that circle, things are very isolated.
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