Why Friendship Isn’t What It Used to Be

Yves here. This article discusses one of the shifts that has taken place in modern life: the dearth of adult friendships. I’m old enough not to entirely accept the author’s premise, that the decline in friendships is due to suburbanization. I contend the much bigger culprit is the change in employer/employee relationships.

When I was a kid, most mothers stayed at home, and the ones who did work generally had part-time jobs. The sort-of exception was female teachers who were also mothers. But even then, many women could make friends with other women through various community groups, ranging from the PTA, a bridge group, to the League of Women’s Voters, to their church, a charity or other cause. Unless her husband worked for a company that liked to move its employees around (IBM was widely called “I’ve Been Moved”; my father worked in the paper industry and I moved as often as military brats do), these relationships had the potential to become close and lasting.

Similarly, in the days when most workers, even white collar workers, generally kept a 9-5 schedule, it was possible for them to have enough time outside work to develop friendships, whether through recreational sports, the classic men’s poker game, the PTA, or community organizations. And when work tenures were much longer, as in many workers stayed with one employer for most or all or his career, and so ten+ year job tenures were normal, people could also make more lasting friendships through work.

Now that jobs are less stable, hours are longer, and the workplace is more stressful, it may not be such a hot idea to get too close to anyone at work, since it could come back to bite you (and I don’t mean affairs, I mean disclosures to someone you regard as a friend where your relationship becomes less cozy and the information can be used against you). Here in New York City, and I suspect elsewhere, even before FaceBook had helped degrade the word, it was common to see the word “friend” applied to someone more accurately described as a “contact” or at best a “colleague”.

I’ve long thought that one of the reasons that so many people in New York City see therapists is that they are rent-a-friend. Too many people have “friends” that come exclusively from their professional circles, meaning they can’t afford to confide in them regarding a deep concern.

And of course, having individuals operate as isolated actors in markets is the neoliberal game plan. So while this appears to be a social issue, it has profound political implications.

By Katie Herzog, Grist’s social editor. Originally published at Grist

Remember childhood? Me neither, but I do have a vague idea that making friends was pretty easy as a kid. You’d find someone roughly the same age as you — a classmate, a neighbor — offer to share your fruit snacks, and that was it. Instant buddies.

As we get older, we opt for friendships based on more than the year we were born and a shared love of mud puddles. At some point, friends become the most important people in our lives: You spend all day passing notes with your pals in class and then come home from school and spend all night talking on the phone with them. (At least, that’s how it worked in the ’90s. Teens today probably ping each other VR KikCakts or something.)

As young adults, the first people you live with outside your family are probably your friends. You form a different kind of family at that point — one based not on bloodlines but by choice. You hang out a lot: Adults between the ages of 20 and 24 spend more time with their friends than any other group, as Julie Beck at the Atlantic points out, and all this time together fosters deep connections. But as we age, the tribe of friendship gets supplanted by other obligations: jobs, spouses, kids, aging parents. Or, as Beck writes, “In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom.”

But why? And does it have to be this way?

Former Grist writer (and forever Grist friend) David Roberts takes a look at the state of modern adult friendships in a new piece on Vox. He writes:

For the vast majority of Homo sapiens’ history, we lived in small, nomadic bands. The tribe, not the nuclear family, was the primary unit. We lived among others of various ages, to which we were tied by generations of kinship and alliance, throughout our lives. Those are the circumstances in which our biological and neural equipment evolved.

It’s only been comparatively recently (about 10,000 years ago) that we developed agriculture and started living in semi-permanent communities, more recently still that were thrown into cities, crammed up against people we barely know, and more recently still that we bounced out of cities and into suburbs.

So everything about how we live now is “unnatural,” at least in terms of our biology. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s bad — it’s generally a bad idea to draw normative conclusions from evolutionary history — but it should remind us that socially constructed living patterns have shallower roots than we might think from our parochial perspective.

Point being, each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it — there’s nothing fated or inevitable about it.

Roberts goes on to look at how suburbanization has contributed to our lack of friendships in adulthood. The majority of Americans today live in suburbs: They drive to work, they drive the kids to school, and they don’t have the repeated spontaneous encounters that, Roberts writes, lead to actual friendships.

This theory aligns with my own experience. I don’t live in a suburb but in an urban apartment building with about a dozen residents. I’m barely on nodding terms with most of my building-mates, and the ones I’m actually friends with are the ones I tend to have the most repeated spontaneous encounters with, like the guy who grills in the yard while I’m back there tanning (OK, it’s Seattle. Less “tanning” and more “reading a magazine in the drizzle.”) But I suspect there is something else to blame for our declining friendships.

I spent most of my life on the East Coast, and when I moved to Seattle, I only knew a handful of people here. A year later, I still know only a handful of people here. I hate to admit it, but it’s been hard to make friends. Seattle is a notoriously difficult city for newcomers (see: the Seattle Freeze), but I don’t think it’s the city itself that has caused this shallow pool of friends in my daily life. Rather, I think it’s my phone.

In his piece, Roberts is talking about the difficulty of maintaining friendships when you live in the same town, but the reality is, it’s never been easier to keep long distance friendships going. I live roughly 3,000 miles away from most of my close friends, and yet, that doesn’t prevent me from keeping in almost constant contact with them. We spend all day online — if I miss my best friends, I know where to find them. They’re on Gchat, email, text message, Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, or any of the other apps that keep people connected. I could make friends in Seattle, which would probably make me more content on a daily basis, but instead, I spend my time maintaining the long distance friendships I already have. Sometimes it’s easier to hold onto the past than create a new future.

The problem, of course, is that friendship is about more than FaceTime: It’s about face time. A tribe 3,000 miles away can’t pick you up from the airport or give you a couch to sleep on when your roof caves in. As Roberts wrote, “We are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us.” And that means in person, not just on the phone.

Regardless of the reasons why, I think I’m going to try to change this pattern, at least in my own life. And the next time I see my neighbors, I’ll take a page from the kindergarten playbook. I may not offer to share my fruit snacks, but I could, at the least, ask them their names. After all, we’re in an age of great changes — some good, some terrifying: We’re going to need each other — in person — in the end. 

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  1. Anon

    Could the ability to increase the sexual relationship content in our daily life contribute to the displacement of friendship?

    1. Fool

      That’s possible. Before, finding sexual partners — e.g. going to a bar, bowling alley, whatever — was also an act of homosocial bonding. Now there’s an app for that.

    2. oho

      I’d strike “sexual relationship” and replace it with media—books, porn, film, music, etc.

      Media content on an inflation-adjusted basis is dirt cheap.

      For the price of a few 1980’s VCR rentals, you get unlimited streaming of nearly every film/TV show every made in English.

  2. abynormal

    “The latest technologies are often sexy, but beware of solutions that vendors dress up like trollops, unless you’re looking for a one-night stand.”
    Stephen Few, Signal: Understanding What Matters in a World of Noise

    “The more time we spend interconnected via a myriad of devices, the less time we have left to develop true friendships in the real world.”
    Alex Morritt, Impromptu Scribe

    “Life without a phone is riskier, lonelier, more vivid.”
    Eloisa James, Paris in Love

    “Every social association that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health”
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    ‘T’echnology aside, there is another ‘T’ culprit…TRUST. the world is Living with a Virus of Distrust from top down.

    1. BEast

      While Taleb’s quotation is thought-provoking, I must disagree with it. Not only does it denigrate online contacts, it does the same to phone calls, and even old fashioned letters. (On paper. Sent with stamps. Remember those?) One would have to be an extreme neo-primitivist to condemn letter-writing.

      Moreover, as to online contacts: it is indeed true that much online communication these days is shallow, brief, and as much a performance for a general audience as it is genuine sharing. Of course socialization has always been to some degree performative, but the both public and permanent natures of online writing up the stakes from a spoken conversation in a crowded room.

      On the other hand, there are people for whom in-person contact is made more difficult for a variety of reasons: being remotely stationed for work (as in Antarctica or Afghanistan, not Seattle) is most obvious, but perhaps just as important: all the many people who are seriously ill, immune compromised, housebound or bedridden, and/or socially isolated due to sexuality, gender expression, religion (or lack thereof) or other reasons. Such people can find emotional lifelines and real support online that they cannot obtain in person where they live.

      Optimal? Perhaps not. But detrimental? On balance, no.

      1. abynormal

        Good points BEast and thanks for sharing deeper consideration(s).
        2010 i emailed/chatted a man thru suicide…i still shiver at the stress. i feared every strike of my keyboard would miss a desperation between the lines, where a facial expression could have clued me in. this went on heavy for 6hrs and continued a few day later. he posted some of my bs around his place and named his new lab after me. i check in on him sometimes…he seems ok but one never knows and i Don’t Ever Want to have to do that again thru tubes.

        Peace & Balance to Us All

        1. BEast

          That was a good deed you did. (I can’t imagine it would have been easy in person, either, though. Some things are just always difficult.)

  3. Barry Fay

    Although the point about real “face time” that followed from FaceTime of IT relationships is well taken, the fact is that friendships with a long history cannot be duplicated no matter how much effort one puts into making new ones. And of course the older one gets the less remaining time there is to actually HAVE a long history with new friends! This is called a quandary!
    Yves´ point about the neoliberal game plan sure added a lot to a discussion that has long been just ignored and one that circuitously can lead to a whole raft of criticism about American society. Follow-ups would be welcome!

      1. cwaltz

        Heh, we’ve got someone else who was a girl scout. I still use that quote with my kids.

        Anecdotally, it IS odd when your teen kids facebook page has over 267 “friends” and he’s bemoaning the fact that he doesn’t have any friends. I was like surely at least one of them is the kind of person you could sit down and grab a cup of coffee with.

    1. Uahsenaa

      I’m more of this opinion as well. I work in academia (well, only sort of now), and the expectation at the early part of your career is that you’ll be pinging from one institution to another every year, often moving thousands of miles each time, and generally never knowing where you’re going to be from one year to the next. For me, this came just after spending seven years in grad school with a close knit group of friends who were in the same or similar programs. It’s actually rather cruel how academia expects you to form a close relationship to your cohort, so you can get by in the elaborate hazing ritual that is training for the professoriat, then when you finish expects that you just cut all ties and wander the wilderness for 4-5 years.

      You go from people who have a real shared history to ever shifting casts of colleagues who are as likely to hold your deepest secrets against you as not. Basically, the conditions of your employment teach you not to get too close to anyone, and it’s hard to break that habit. I think I have a better relationship with the people who swim at the same time as I do at the pool than with anyone at the university.

      1. Ulysses

        “Basically, the conditions of your employment teach you not to get too close to anyone, and it’s hard to break that habit.”

        This seems to me to be more valid in relation to white collar, or managerial positions than it may be in many blue-collar environments. When I was teaching medieval history I often felt I had to walk on egg-shells at the university. I never felt this kind of restraint with my Teamster friends at the terminal.

        I’m still very close to some friends I made while working non-academic summer jobs while I was in grad. school.

        I think the larger point Yves makes– that “having individuals operate as isolated actors in markets is the neoliberal game plan,” is very important. This is one of the reasons that engaging in local activism is so valuable! Maybe you don’t succeed in blocking that Walmart from coming into town or whatever, but you do build a community of people who can strengthen their friendships into unbreakable bonds that won’t shatter under neoliberal assaults.

        I have a friend upstate who threw away tremendous opportunities as a young man because of drugs, alcohol, and other factors. Yet, because he kept the fires of friendship burning with many of us who were more fortunate, he is now starting his second half-century of life in a much better place than he was a decade ago. We simply refused to allow him to suffer alone. After years of rebuffing our attempts to help, he began a few years ago to start getting his act together. Now he is playing some of the best music of his life, surrounded by friends and family that love him. He doesn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we shower him with food and laughter, and the smile on his face is a great gift to the world.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We are not born that way, not from tubes nor incubators with pre-selected genes.

      Instead, we are ‘produced’ in mental factories to be easily replaceable discrete parts.

      And the system is deliberately designed to produce more C students than A students. The former forms a vast reserve against inflation in the system.

      Naturally, all students, under such a Darwinian learning environment, strive to be ‘smarter than others.’

      “I am smarter than you. I am in the intellectual 1%.”

      There is no equality in the intellectual realm. Not much ‘if you are stupid, if you are not that smart, let me help you.’ Instead, if you commit a stupid act, if you do or say something not smart, you are branded.

  4. Christian B

    I am 48. I have a lot of free time, mostly because I do not work but also do not spend time on social networks and use the internet for news and research only. I am an anomaly among people my age. Many of my friends are drifting away and the ones I have are a mess.

    Is it the phone? Yes. Is it Social Networks and the Internet? Yes. Is it sub-urbanization? Yes, (but I call that geographical isolation). Is it workplace division (read anti-union as well). Yes.

    All those things are the products of neoliberalism.

    I am living with my friend and her family of four right now until my apartment is ready. They live in a 500k house in a pretty upscale neighborhood. What I see are people busy all day doing nothing or trying to make sure their kids do not “miss out” on anything now so that their future will be some impossible version of perfect. The fear of missing out (FOMO) in the parents is caused by looking at Facebook all day and it is pushed onto their kids. And they live their lives focused only on the kids. Instead of being an adult model for the kids they constantly drop down to their level and kowtow to all of their peculiarities.

    They are busy, but they cannot see that they are the source of their business.

    And I see a high level of anxiety, not only in my friends, but their friends as well, and they talked about this openly at a recent get together. Most of them were terrified to let their 8 year old play outside by themselves in a very exclusive neighborhood. This anxiety is not only caused by their social lifestyle, but also by the poor dietary habits they have since they have no time to focus on themselves and the food they eat. There were eight adults there and it took my constant prodding to get the conversation away from their kids and what school they were trying to get them into or how they can “manage” the better. Yes, they used that word! Manage! Not care for them, manage them!

    I also see unhealthy relationships between these couples; totally antagonistic and selfish, another neoliberal trait, only concerned about their own bottom line.

    So with all this pressure on them, they not only can’t fit friends into their life, but conversations with them are awkward, disjointed, one sided, and interrupted by glances at their phones as well.

    It is all so gross to me. So gross I do not have internet in my house and I have a dumb phone with no texting. I have conversations with strangers even if they do not want to, because most of them do, but they don’t know how. It used to be, less than 15 years ago, I could go to a coffee shop and actually meet people. Now people are all just staring at a phone or a computer, their legs bouncing up and down in an attempt to release some the the anxiety created by the stream of fear that is pumped through them through advertising, click bait articles, and sensationalist news.

    I see this will all fall apart eventually, and I am just waiting. That is the motion of the Dao, everything returns. A strong wind will not blow all day.

    1. wallacegk

      Very insightful observations, thank you for posting.I’m 67, and have been fortunate to be able to travel extensively for both business and pleasure. This status anxiety isn’t restricted to the USA, but is a peculiar and particular type, very aggrandized, maybe a reaction to the immaturity of our nations vs. other areas, Europe in particular.We seem to have an unhealthy preoccupation with British royalty, and seem to elevate our own ” celebrities” to some unofficial royal status for pretty much no logical reason.We are also the most child centric culture I’ve experienced, but mostly from a material, superficial standpoint. Where else in the world do people put stickers on their cars bragging about the schools they attend, or stating that they’re ” proud parents of a ( fill in the blank,,) honor student.?Meanwhile, even is wealthy suburban schools, drugs, suicide, depression, and so on are endemic. It’s quite sad,

      1. BEast

        I would add that we also lack the social safety nets of Europe, particularly universal health care. If anyone not in the 0.01% can be taken into penury by a malfunctioning body, not to mention the next lay-off or restructuring, material anxiety (and its cruel stopgap preventative, victim-blaming) is to be expected.

        Also products of neoliberalism.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      All those things are the products of neoliberalism.

      Agree, and nicely put!

      Friendships form under the most unusual circumstances. Many of the circumstances described in this article and in comments can (usually are not, but can) be “opportunities” as much as constraints for friendship, but when such circumstance is the spawn of neoliberal inspired economic duress, it seems to be a real relationship killer or inhibitor – the ultimate “Roundup” for friendship – and all the permutations and manifestations of it (that is, of greed, the origin of neoliberalism) seem to share that particular trait; a toxicity toward the ability for meaningful and/or lasting relationships to grow.

      And that’s not neoliberalism’s only trick.

    3. Jim

      Well said!

      Americans’ serious lack of social skills is not only a product but also a cause of these issues. Our consumer economy has trained us to reject whatever is not 100% satisfying and that affects our social relations, too. Our lives and our fundamental resource as humans — that is, our attention-energy — is being mined for profit. The longer it goes on, the more it’s normalized, and we can’t remember any other way, yet we still have a gnawing sense of despair. Europe still has some resistance to this, but even there it’s crumbling in the face of media technologies.

      Yves, I love this topic, because of its transparency in our daily lives and yet it’s fundamental and an obvious outcome of a life intended to be consumed rather than appreciated. The rhetorical shift of people from “citizens” to “consumers” in postwar America is telling. I would, and I’m sure others would, appreciate more posts on this topic as a predictable outcome of income inequality. While the economically powerful would make us think that the purview of economics has merely economic consequences, it re-knits our social fabric as well.

      1. chris

        Excellent comment ans I agree that we could all use more of this discussion, which is at the root of both our social and economic problems.

        The shift to a consumer economy was deliberate and well executed. See the BBC documentary “The Century of Self” on the origins, mechanisms and motives for creating a society of unstable consumers after the war. Satisfied, egalitarian communities don’t buy as much stuff, and can’t be manipulated nearly as easily.

    4. chris

      Spot on. It seems that the best adjective for these folks, most any folks these days in the US, is “retarded”. They are fundamentally incompetent at bring adults. They haven’t the skills to develop and maintain relationships or be anything other than glorified nannies for adolescents. Not exactly higher level humanity.

      But as pointed out, they are docile, fearful, easily-manipulated consumers who are well trained in their role in the economy.

  5. allan

    As a suburbanite, I couldn’t agree more about the effect of the auto-centric lifestyle on reducing the opportunities to randomly encounter people, some small fraction of which might become friends. And if you have kids, you develop friendships among their friends’ parents or through the schools, but after a certain point that stops.

    But the real killer in denser settings (urban streets, college campuses) as been first the Walkman and iPod and then the smart phone. They create barriers which make spontaneous encounters almost impossible – you need to have a very good reason for interrupting somebody who’s either listening to their favorite music or talking on the phone or fiddling with one of their social media apps. And just as globalization was an economic experiment that could only be run once, the iPhoning of society is a social experiment that will likely be irreversible.

  6. scott

    I was at a bar in a fairly trendy neighborhood and two women came into the bar simultaneously who had either agreed to meet there or met by accident, but they hugged and talked about how long it had been since they last met. It seemed to me that they had been friends for a long time. This talking went on until their drinks came, then the phones came out and they literally stared at their phones in silence until I finished my beer and left. If you go to any environment that used to be considered a “meeting place” you will now see rows of people in stools staring at their phones.

    1. jrs

      It will be blamed on phones and texting and the internet etc. but predates all of that. It’s the rise of television which isolated people inside, the rise of the automobile which destroyed communities, the need to work long hours and move for work etc.. The toys might just be stupid toys at the end of the day, neither as significant as their promoters (tech) nor their detractors think.

      1. LifelongLib

        Well, when I was young I often watched TV with my friends. It’s actually a much more social activity than reading, phoning, or surfing the web are. Agree about cars etc.

        1. cwaltz

          It’s still a fairly “social” thing. Who here hasn’t had a conversation about a show like Game of Thrones or Downtown Abbey with someone?

    2. chris

      If you had said 7 years ago that you’d go to a restaurant and most people would be staring at their phones most of the time, you’d think they were nuts!

  7. Joaquin Closet

    True friends are people who have not only something in common with you, they are someone who usually has “gone through” something with you – school, college, trusted roommate, military, tough project, losing a boob or nut to cancer, and so forth. In our ever-more-dynamic society, less and less of that goes on. We get married and move away because of a job; we stay in our homes for an avg of 4+ years now, instead of 7.5 years a generation ago. Our social status changes due to money issues, divorce, etc. In short, it’s just tougher to cultivate a friendship these days. You need time and a more static overall environment.

    When I got out of college (a military academy), I started traveling the world. Hard to make long-lasting friends when you arrive in Turkey, make friends and, six months later, they’re re-billeted somewhere else. Hard to make friends when you get the promotion at work ahead of people you’re chummy with, and resentment sets in.

    But I think the major cause of having a lack of friends for some people is that our overall attitudes are changing faster these days. Unless you live in the middle of Nebraska and you’re meeting your “coverall and coffee” crowd over the pickle barrel, chances are your political, social, fiscal, etc. attitudes change more quickly now due to the huge amount of content out there due to the internet. And you’ve all read the articles about our society’s overall instant gratification needs and attention span deficeit. Since we tend not to gravitate to the “crazy conservative” side if we’re “flaming liberal,” or vice versa, you’ve got that, as well. And I think the “I was thinking of going to Machu Pichu this spring” crowd breaks up pretty easily with the “Have a good time; I’ll be tallying up my Warcraft scores this spring” crowd. In other words, friendships don’t develop as deeply as they did a generation ago; my parents’ generations’ (Greatest Generation) friendships lasted even longer.

    So excuse me as I have to tell a few buds about my abrupt personal view changes on Bernie Sanders. lol

    1. BEast

      I’ve recently been pondering the difficulties of building and maintaining friendships, but the boundary that sprang to mind was not social media or cars or distance or race or politics.

      It was class.

      Class stratification isolates us; actually, it isolates the rich more, because they have fewer peers that high up the wealth pyramid. (Not that I pity them.) But even in the absence of class or ethnic or “breeding” snobbery, it’s just not that easy to form a friendship between two people with a large income disparity.

      Part of this is about the money itself — the richer person may legitimately worry that the poorer person wants something from them, or that they will in the future. But it’s also about what one does with a friend, and the expectations of that — and the money spent on it — vary hugely across classes and localities. I might quite like someone in the 1% and be happy to spend time with them, but be unable and unwilling to shell out for the lunch/dinner/drinks/club/show/game/vacation that think constitute socializing.

      1. hunkerdown

        And think of all the new classes the identity economy (to call it a politics would be misleading) produces for us at the lower ends upon which to stake out a position. Along how many axes would you like to be atomized today? (with apologies not-apologies to Microsoft Windows 95)

        1. BEast

          Well, pre-identity whatever, everyone was presumed to be be straight and Christian, and if they weren’t, they were supposed to be quiet about it. That rather stank too.

          I actually think that as society gets more LGBT-friendly, LGBT identity has become less of a social barrier than it used to be — more LGBT people can both be open and friendly with non-LGBTs, and both seem to enjoy it.

      2. JerryDenim

        Bingo! I was just waiting to jump in with the same point when I came across your comment. My wife and I had a nice conversation a couple of years ago with a young Belgian couple living in Chile regarding the differences between the gentler socialist countries of Europe vs. the dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all neoliberal countries like the US and Chile. They made a great point I had never thought of regarding marriage that carries over to friendships as well. They pointed out in places like Norway or Belgium you don’t have to worry yourself sick if your daughter falls in love with someone who is pursuing a career path outside of medicine or finance because even gardeners and waiters still make a living wage, still get 8 weeks of paid vacation, still get decent healthcare and can still afford to raise a family and send their kids to college if they want. There is no shame in being a house painter. All jobs have dignity and everyone is given a chance to live a life that is not all toil and misery. How nice! The same dynamic is at play with friendships. Lifelong friends who perhaps would remain lifelong friends are torn apart by their early thirties if they choose divergent career paths. A gig economy artistic type of person is not going to be able to participate in the lifestyle or social activities of their former friends who choose high paying careers in finance or medicine. The two will end up with such different lifestyles one will feel embarrassed and one will probably feel ashamed, either way relating to each other will become difficult if not impossible. Inequality here in the US tears friendships apart as people are relegated to socializing with their own income strata once they grow out of their twenties.

        1. BEast

          All jobs have dignity and everyone is given a chance to live a life that is not all toil and misery. How nice!

          Highlighting this because this is as it should be. American society does not have to be as mean-spirited and cutthroat as it is. It is this way because of choices, made over time.

          And while plenty of those choices are made by the elites, they are enabled by too many non-elites who think the poor deserve what they get (whatever that is), and too many white people that (as Professor John Bracy has pointed out) don’t want something that benefits them if it might benefit black people too.

  8. frosty zoom

    where i live, everybody! has a dog. (i have a cat, thank you very much). my observations have shown me that dogs make excellent interhuman communication facilitators. something like this:

    dog walker a: oh, hi, what’s your dogs name?

    dog walker b: oh, that’s bloodfang.

    dog walker a: nice. and this is mr. morsel. he’s a moronican double puff dirt hound.

    dog walker b: ooh, look! they like each other!

    (sniff, sniff, wag)

    dog walker b: so, who are you voting for?

    if it weren’t for these animals, no strangers would ever, ever talk. yet because of them, people of widely varying social class, interests, ethnicities, etc., will actually pass a moment in conversation.

    obviously this is not friendship, but for many i imagine this somewhat fills the gap.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      i was talking to someone at the gym who’s a sheriff (they’re not all bad) and asked him about getting a dog. I mentioned the German Shepherd.

      “Very expensive. $10,000 or more. And the liability insurance is very expensive too.”

      I then mumbled something about maybe getting a miniature indoor dog.

      1. nycTerrierist

        Why not consider adopting a shelter dog?
        Rescue groups will be happy to make a good fit for you based on temperament, energy level, etc.

        My two shelter dogs are the best thing I ever did for myself. The first died, coincidentally, two years ago today and I’m on my second. Both “interhuman communication facilitators” par excellence.
        Living in downtown NY, everyday I have random warm encounters with such a broad range of people
        thanks to my dog. And as a regular at the dog run and walking the ‘hood, I’ve met several human friends – people with whom I also have non-canine interests in common. But I would never have met them without the relaxing and yes, humanizing vibe of the dogs.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          That’s a good idea. I have been thinking about it. My last two cats were given to me and I took them in.

          1. nycTerrierist

            You won’t regret it.
            You could also foster a rescue dog to see how you do. If you’re a newbie, I recommend an adult dog – puppies are alot of work.
            I have two great cats, too. But there is nothing like a dog
            to connect you to the here and now outside the house!

          2. craazyboy

            A friend of mine in OC recently found a pair of pure bred pugs in his garage one day. Apparently someone had abandoned them. They were in bad shape, dirty and full of fleas, so they must have been living on the street for some time. He is a dog lover and already has a pug, coincidently. He immediately took the dogs to the dog groomer and for a $100 got them de-flead and all cleaned up, fed and happy again. Then he called an organization in OC that rescues and finds homes for pugs! So if you check around, you may even find places that may have specific breeds you would like to adopt.

            1. nycTerrierist

              Good point. There are breed-focussed rescue groups, if you want a specific type.

              On Petfinder.com you can type in your area code and the breed you are seeking.
              It’s a great database for various rescue groups.

              1. Merf56

                Don’t forget cats need rescue as well! We have two rescued cats. Two in a long line of rescues since I was a child. All have gradually come around to have wonderful personalities and who have bonded with us deeply. In fact one is trying to bash the iPad as I type this! Though we cannot take them out for walkies like pups to meet people( which is a great idea for the lonely – I agree!) when people you meet mention they have cats and you happen to have several, as our family does, it is an instant connection and promotes at least pleasant conversation..

                1. Gio Bruno

                  …I would say this online discussion about getting a dog (MLTPB) that morphed into a discussion of finding a home for ‘mongrels’ is an example of people treating the commentariat as, sort of, …friends. Hey, they’re out there! Take ’em where you find them.

      2. optimader

        “Very expensive. $10,000 or more. And the liability insurance is very expensive too.”
        Sounds like the Sherriff goes to the same municipal taxing authority revenue enhancement seminars as my village fathers go to.
        I agree on the shelter dog alternative btw. You can meet some of the smarter than average dogs there if youre prudent.

      3. nippersdad

        $10,000 for a dog! Liability insurance! That sounds like a whole ‘nother world.

        We live out in the country, and at one time there were strays everywhere; both cats and dogs. We took them in and cleaned them up and, by and large, they were all great critters with really memorable personalities. We have had about twenty dogs and five cats thus far. Lots of the dogs were purebreds as well, including the German Shepherd.

        What we have found is that it is virtually all in how they were raised, and that even those who did not have the best upbringing will ultimately joyfully conform to a tolerable standard once they find themselves in a stable and supportive environment. They, like everyone else, mostly just want to be loved. Not all, prolly not even most, dogs at the shelters are there because of something that they did, so that would be a very good place to look for a great dog of any size, but don’t overlook the mutts! Mutts do have fewer health problems over time.

        Having critters can be great fun. I wouldn’t let that one guy put you off of looking for one because, really, he doesn’t sound like he likes them at all. He sounded very discouraging.

        1. aletheia33

          ”What we have found is that it is virtually all in how they were raised, and that even those who did not have the best upbringing will ultimately joyfully conform to a tolerable standard once they find themselves in a stable and supportive environment. They, like everyone else, mostly just want to be loved.”

          applies equally to humans.

  9. Joan

    I wonder if if is a cultural thing. I am fortunate in having a job that allows me to spend a fair amount of time in both the UK and US, and have to say that my UK “friend” network is extensive, long-lasting and seems pretty impervious to how long I have been away. While people in the US appear more friendly on the surface, after living back here for six years (I was born and raised in the states) I’ve found that actually transforming that surface friendliness into something more meaningful has proved really elusive. However, the vital difference probably was the fact my son was born and raised in the UK – giving those vital anchor points into the community that as an adult (or even an adult couple) are hard(er) to create.

    1. Jim

      I’ve found Europeans more resistant to these trends as well. I’m still in contact with people I worked with (!!!) more than 12 years ago and even just recently saw a few of them. There’s a social element that (for now) resists this commodficiation.

  10. Merf56

    Wow I can relate to this!! I have lived in the past 20 years in two suburbanish areas -‘one in the outer burbs of Philadelphia, PA ( where I grew up mostly) and in the upscale Ahwatukee section of Phoenix, Az. I met three neighbors, through my kids at the bus stop in Az who are still friends.
    Here in Pa, in our eighth year living here, I finally met the neighbor who lives diagonally from me. I have tried to wave to them and even slowed the car while they were outside to met them or stop when I am walking or biking but they seem to deliberately turn back towards their house. Upon meeting finally they actually seem like very nice people but apparently they have enough ‘friends’ and are not even interested in possibly making another. The rest I see occasionally for a ‘hi how are you guys’while doing yard work at the end of the driveway. Since my kids were both in college when we moved to PA I had no ‘in’. And the neighbors, while apparently decent people, seem to have no interest in even trying to find out if friendships could be made with us.
    I feel the poster child for Robert Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’.
    My spouse used to have friends from work early on that we did a lot of things with but for these same past 20 years he works out of the house so we cannot meet anyone that way. I volunteer two separate places and we joined several environmental organizations we volunteer with as a couple and no one even wants to go for coffee after. It’s not just me – they want to go with no one. They just rush out to their cars when things are over . No one is friends.
    Mostly people we meet just tell you how busy they are but they don’t seem to be doing much but watching TV, surfing the net and talk celebunonsense when We do have a conversation. So we pretty much stick to ourselves and our extended family now that most of us are finally all in the same state again( good luck we had there! Even the younger ones are always visiting around and vice versa)…
    What people seem to call friends these days I call acquaintances… I do wonder, as things continue to go downhill, whether the desire and or need for friends will continue to slide or will make a groundswell comeback. I hope the latter but fear the former!

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      “Bread maybe not be so tasty (is it carcinogenic?), but circuses are very strong,” Master Yoda said.

      Watching TV, talking celebunonsense and surfing the net (by looking at one’s palm…infinity in the palm of you hand) – that’s how one or a small group of people can sedate a whole nation.

      1. optimader

        I dunno.. I think the 4G phone is a FANTASTIC TOOL. Many use them as a security blanket-self medication delivery device, more a symptom than the root problem IMO.

        Who knows, if people that inappropriately shield themselves from social interaction in public didn’t have phones maybe they would be self medicating with booze instead?
        In some sense ppl that bury themselves in a phone in public are probably doing everyone else a favor by self segregating. Ultimately, if it works for them I’m good with it, still plenty of ppl left to interact with when I want.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          I don’t have a 4G phone, so I don’t even know where to begin to wildly speculate, like I have a habit of doing.

  11. JohnB

    Yea I have to echo others who would like to see more of a follow-up on this particular topic – I think it’s something that is inherent to adulthood itself in general – and it’s largely down to people being (probably having to be) very miserly with their time, often down to work and sometimes kids. People also aren’t thrust into social environments where they have something in common, and can make friends more easily, like school/college (work, as expressed above, isn’t the same).

    For myself, I have the added problem of suffering anxiety through my teenage/early-adult years, which has held back my social development – and now I’m in a catch-22 situation, where it’s extremely hard to achieve the social development I need, as it’s quite hard to make friends, and I feel that when the lack of social development becomes apparent to others, that ends the opportunity to make friends and develop.

    It’s very difficult – I’m worried there might not be an achievable way to work on it. There is also a tendency within the psychiatric industry, to ‘blame the victim’, and label this a problem with the person (for having anxiety, focusing treatment on that), when it seems to me, to be more of a problem with society itself overall.

    1. Carla

      I think this may be the bottom line: as long as nothing changes, nothing changes. While it certainly is not easy to change one’s own behavior, I personally have found it possible to change myself, whereas I have not had success in changing anyone else.

    2. Ulysses

      I don’t know if this makes good sense for you personally, but many people I know who have felt the need to develop socially have been able to do so through volunteering, and working on causes. The difficult part is that this requires a lot of patience. My friend Luigia worked at a neighborhood tutoring/teen-mentoring center for three years, twice a week, before she began to truly feel she had made some good friends there.

    3. aletheia33


      please take heart from the number of people who have commented on this thread who seem to strongly appreciate the value of friendships with depth. i’m 60 and was raised without social skills. i have learned them to some extent, but i’ll never feel like an adept! trust that there are lots of people quietly wanting connection out there just as much as you do and that you can find one another. the dog approach does work, and it works well for shy people too. one of my closest friends today is someone i met on a hiking trail, both of us with our dogs. she is an extravert and was talking to everyone on the trail–which ended up including me (an introvert).

      it is true that people are busy, but many people who live alone really do have time to spend with others and it’s not too late to awaken their interest with a bit of sympathy and warmth, people living alone crave it, which is simply human. and usually they really need to talk! …being willing to listen is the only social skill one really needs.

      don’t worry about how good your “social skills” are. if you feel a natural caring for others, it will show and they will respond to you, often at the slightest reaching out.

      in the isolation we live in today, most of us are lonely, and though it requires some extra courage to open up and/or reach out, there is also a longing that can compel one to find company.

      i refuse to let the social destruction that neoliberalism has wrought deprive me of human connection.

  12. timotheus

    Very interesting topic. I trace the change to the pre-app, pre-smartphone era when commerce moved out of central locations/downtowns and into the malls. That was my experience anyway–when the small Midwest town I grew up in was hit with a shopping center 12 miles away, the downtown stores where you would run into people you knew were slammed and never recovered. It also coincided with the rust belt phenomenon, so people started moving away in search of work also, which didn’t help. But I think there is a lot of blame to be laid at the lack of physical encounters. If you visit any locality in Latin America, the central plaza is still a magnet for social interaction, no matter what the size. (My home town was only 12K people, but I think it’s the same thing at pretty much any level.) Then the destruction of wages (our unions were quickly wrecked as jobs moved first south, then overseas) forced women into the workforce and wiped out the typical female-led service organizations while the men’s (Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary) also dried up with the longer hours required on the job and the need to share household work. Finally, people became increasingly car-dependent as grocery stores grew larger and moved to distant sites with large parking lots. I recall coming back for visits in the mid-1980s and marveling at the fact that I could walk to and from downtown every day without ever running into a soul–except the letter carrier, even on beautiful summer days.

    1. AdamK

      I thought about architecture and social life while visiting Rome. The city is filled with Plazas designed for people’s meet up place. In the US, nothing is happening this way, even if you have public areas, gatherings are usually restricted unless for commerce purposes. If you have no business being there you’re approached by guard or policeman. You can mostly see groups of youngsters who attract law authority, and sent away.
      I was born in the middle east and is used to a different interaction. I used to say that looking at Starbucks customers who are sitting and working there, they only know they exist by occupying a seat that no one will attempt to take over. It is nice to know that others feel the same…

  13. Eureka Springs

    obviously this is not friendship, but for many i imagine this somewhat fills the gap.

    A perfect description for the limits of social web interaction as well.

    As one who is fortunate enough to have many dear friends I find trying to make new friends much more difficult these days for two main reasons. many people out there took the Jerry Springer Show as a template for life rather than a joke or warning.

    And trust…. part of trust is respecting each others privacy. With pervasive surveillance, permanent records on dozens if not hundreds of levels, nobody can confide in trust. The medium alone makes it impossible. Most people have no idea what that kind of trust or privacy means at all. Just ask a casual friend not to post your photo on faceborg. They seemingly cannot imagine not doing so even if asked several times over a few years… Much less why you would ask such a thing. Often times they do it anyway.

    But most of these people whether consciously or not operate on a most superficial level because somewhere inside we all know nothing is in confidence. If you are smart you cannot utilize digital communication (social, texts, email) of any kind on any level beyond a conversation with potential employer, creditor or with the town gossip. This bleeds into how we interact on personal levels outside of the digital realm as much of the neoliberal mentions above describe.

    Short, simple, superficial, dare I say mechanical and certain to stay that way – describes cautious acquaintance, not a friend. And if you stick to this method with sincere old friends far away… it can degrade relationships of depth.

    Now be sure and run all potential friends credit records.

  14. Steve

    Everything about our modern economy whether orchestrated or accidental promotes loneliness and dissatisfaction with one’s life (to some extent). This works great for a consumer based profit system since without friends and family to lean on or hang out with many will seek to fill the emptiness with the next product which has been marketed to make them feel better about their situation. I’m in my 50’s and everything seems to have a slight tinge of mania to it with little likelihood of changing.

    1. BEast

      Good point! If we valued interpersonal relationships more and “things” less, the consumer culture would take a nosedive. The corps and advertisers can’t have that.

  15. sch

    An excellent post for halloween! Related; A lot of these liberal, “What Went Wrong With America And How We Can Fix It!” books — the type of books that lament the demise of unions at length – also generally append to that paragraph a single sentence re; the demise of ‘community groups’ or ‘the public sphere’. I’m 46, but feel young enough that I DON’T UNDERSTAND /REMEMBER WHAT EITHER OF THOSE THINGS ARE. And literally every author of these books just assumes the reader remembers them. Yves brings up things like PTA, and ‘bridge and poker groups’ as examples, which a) is more than those authors cite, example-wise, but b) I would rather have no friends at all, than pta/poker buddies.

    I’m very curious if anyone can cite examples of community or public sphere groups that they remember or have heard of.

    Because I think the theory of ‘powers-that-be undercutting social groups that they don’t control via the mass-media’ is cool,(i want to believe it) but on the other hand, I can’t really see poker games, Lions’ Club meetings, or quilting bees as a potential threat worthy of The Man’s conspiracies.

    1. Merf56

      A bit condescending don’t you think? Just because you perhaps do not enjoy an activity like cards or other games does not make them worthy of your disdain….
      My mother had a bridge group of eight women in our general neighborhood. It was a varied age range from early thirties to sixties.
      They not only played bridge an afternoon a week they were there for each other. Helping out when my mom had emergency surgery and a long recovery for instance – coming and making me breakfast and packing my lunch because my dad had to travel often. Then they made sure mom had food and was ok.they made us dinner for almost two months until my mom could get around and after that we went to dinner at their homes for almost another two months. My mom reciprocated when things happened to others. One neighbor went belly up financially and were dead broke. There were three kids.families each took a child and made sure they had clothes, lunches, lunch money and one of the kids was my age. She practically lived with us for a full year.
      My mom and/ or dad belonged to several groups that did the same – the Needlework Guild of America- a charity club that made blankets, sweaters, baby clothes as well as other things for charities, a couples card club, a travel club where people brought their slides and home movies and other info and helped each other plan trips etc.
      Demeaning these types of long term connections that were of infinite value, not only to the people involved but to their families….
      One does not want to get into the mindset that everything was ‘better before’ because of course that is not true but I DO think in this instance it likely was.
      We have gained a lot from tech but clearly it has supplanted healthy personal interdependency that was instrumental n binding our communities together.

    2. hunkerdown

      It’s not the congregations themselves that are the proximate danger; it’s the unmoderated, unmediated social bonds they cultivate, and the material support they may offer one another as a consequence of that familiarity and sympathy. If plenty of such organs — “cells” are a bit too isolated and two-dimensional to fit here, and “organizations” are too purposeful and planned — acknowledge their common interests and act upon them, the power relation of debt peonage and wage labor as forces of social control is attenuated. “Go on, fire me. My people will help me out once they hear this story.”

      How about that? “My people.” I’m not sure whether that’s more or less familiar or common in spirit than “my friends”, but pretty sure it’s not equal.

    3. jrs

      Poker and bridge is fine if that’s your thing, but I don’t remember any of these things either and I’m about your age but a few years younger. I think the silent generation, did some of those things when young. I think most of those groups took their strength from when less women worked period. No, I don’t think women working is the problem and I know women paid dearly at times for that arrangement. I think a workaholic culture for men and women is the problem, but when it was only men at least some of these things were possible.

      For us middle aged Xers I think they mean meetup.com groups. I can only figure that’s what they really mean. But then those are internet enabled … oooh the evil internet. But has there ever been anything else? Before the internet I only remember THERE WAS NOTHING at all to do, no easy way to find interest groups etc.. It may not be vastly better with the ‘net, but it’s a bit better.

      1. cwaltz

        I’m a middle aged Xer and I remember my dad’s poker games. My brother and I would be relegated to upstairs in my parent’s bedroom with our own deck of cards and oreos. Then again until I hit my teen years I did have the stay at home mom who taught religious instruction and we did have the neighborhood where everyone knew each other(which has it’s pros and cons when you have a father with substance abuse issues.)

  16. Francis

    Life is all about Love, simple as that may sound; and of course a feeling of great thanks for beating all odds to be here. Embrace the day, be yourself, make others smile, be generous, helpful, courteous, loving. One teaches by example. Its not complicated. Indeed, it may very well be our tribal roots that hold us back.

    1. Francis

      Well one could argue that stats has nothing to do with it. Anyway, my simple thought is clear enough.

  17. Jagger

    All these comments and I am surprised no one has mentioned religion and church. Historically in America, the church has been the center of life unifying communities. I don’t belong to a church or religion but I know people who do. I am fairly convinced when people go to church on Sundays, it is as much a social event as a worship event for those who belong. Of course, religion has weakened quite a bit in the last 50-60 years in America and unfortunately nothing has really replaced it as a social network.

      1. cwaltz

        I’m more inclined to believe the problem is the male hierarchy of the church, not the ladies who seem to be the church workhorses even today.

    1. Gio Bruno

      Praise the Lord! Or is it: Raise the gourd?

      I do remember those church days: what could be better than ceremony, socializing, and new shoes!
      Church has always been about socializing, the ceremony is simply subterfuge.

    2. JerryDenim

      I had an evangelical church upbringing where I was forced to attend church every time the doors opened. Twice on Sundays, Wednesday nights and frequently Thursday nights for choir practice until I was old enough to stay home alone. I have nearly zero fond memories and exactly zero childhood church friends left from my years there. I would say 85% of those other church kids I grew up with ended up with less than happy lives. I think constant guilt, shaming and the coercive threat of eternal damnation makes a poor foundation for lifelong friendships. Maybe a less fundamentalist church experience would have been more enjoyable or beneficial for me, but from my experience “church” is a form of mind control that leaves children with lifelong crippling anxieties and neuroses. I won’t be shedding any tears for the loss of the church. I think people should join a different organization if they want community.

  18. Sluggeaux

    There is a lot of good writing here, both by Katie Herzog and in comments, but good lord people, don’t they teach Émile Durkheim in Sociology 1A any more? Hasn’t anybody read Camus? Durkheim’s theory of anomie was developed in France in the 1890’s and perfectly describes what we’re discussing here.

    While I have long subscribed to Durkheim’s thesis that “…anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for better or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life” (from Wikipedia), I also ascribe a Malthusian component to the peculiarly American anomie described above.

    As global population has exploded — the population of my own state of California grew from 19 million when I started high school in 1971 to an estimated 43 million today — scarcity of all resources, both natural and social, has created in all of us the perception of our lives as a desperate competition, that we see played out in the “management” style of parenting that is so prevalent today. Resources are scarce today, be they decent jobs, decent housing, high-quality foods, or tickets to the Giants game. We are also now in global competition for these basic necessities. This has contributed a growing culture of tribalism, lying, and back-stabbing.

    The Internet isn’t all bad, either. This week I had dinner with one of my best friends — who I met on an Internet discussion forum a dozen years ago. After a few years we met in person, and although we have always lived 400 miles apart, we manage to meet for dinner three or four times a year when our travels coincide.

  19. DJG

    Great comment up top by Yves. Also, I noted the mention within the article of Seattle Freeze. Frosty Zoom points out the shallow word of the dog people.

    1. I ran across an article about “Midwest Nice” recently, and the article itself and many of the comments pointed out that Midwest Nice is just some shellac over people who aren’t all that outgoing or friendly. So maybe Seattle Freeze and Midwest Nice are just symptoms of Americans as poor friends.
    2. The phone is a symptom and problem. Think of it as a symptom like a cough–some other problem lurks.
    3. A friend of mine from Roma saw all the dogs being walked in Chicago and commented that so many dogs are a sign of loneliness. I consider most dogs to be externalized loneliness. And the amount spent on doggy accoutrements is a further symptom.
    4. My Italian friends (and I also heard this comment in France) maintain that Americans don’t work at their friendships. Americans are great at showing up in Italia, partying on, wearing funny hats, and going home, never to be heard from again. Back to point 1: Are Americans good friends?
    5. Not sure about suburbanization. My sibs have raised their kids in the suburbs of Chicago and Milwaukee, and my niblings have many tight friendships. Again, making friends is a cultural issue.
    6. But, yes, the decline of civic, informal (card games), and parochial (church) groups, as Yves points out, whatever the cause, is a big problem here.

    1. grayslady

      Agree with your Italian friend’s comments that most Americans don’t “work” at their friendships, although I also think there is confusion between friendliness and friendship. Socializing is not friendship. Most churches, civic groups, business groups and other interest-based gatherings don’t provide friendship, merely socialization. If you join those groups, hoping to make friends, you often find that many of those who participate don’t want to allocate any more of their personal time to individual friendships, for a variety of reasons.

      Having lived all of my life in Midwestern suburbs, I also agree that suburbs, in and of themselves, don’t prohibit friendships. A lot depends on how far apart the homes are. In closely spaced communities, it’s much more common to develop friendly relations with neighbors since you tend to see them regularly.

      I also think weather affects socialization. Prior to air conditioning, people used to sit on front stoops or front porches during the summer and neighbors, who were out for a walk to cool off, would stop by and visit. In my current townhome neighborhood, there’s a lot more socialization when people are out on their decks in the summertime, or when parents are outside as the neighborhood kids are playing together.

      1. DJG

        Front porches / front stoops in Chicago: Now we are showing our generation. Yes, there was a lot of informal visiting in good weather.

        Other points:
        –The current obsessions with food (gluten) and weirdness of food (bacon) limit eating together. As the saying goes, Eating can be the most intimate thing that two persons do together. The culture of disposable coffee cups doesn’t lead to chatting. Offering food has become difficult. Today is Halloween–think of the scares about candy treats.
        –Americans are bad at flirting. Really bad.
        –The U S of A is highly segregated by age, which means that friendships across age groups are considered odd. Luckily, I also work in theater and the arts, where the stress is on equals working together, regardless of age.

    2. Arizona Slim

      I’ve known many a dog person who uses the dog as a barrier to relationships with humans. It’s as if they have no other purpose in this world than to do this, that, or the other thing for or with the dog.

  20. Spoon Agave

    This subject has been deeply and thoroughly studied and analyzed by sociologist Robert Putnam in his seminal work Bowling Alone. He explored declining social capital, the weakening of community and, as he aptly puts it, the “atomization” of Americans in the period from the mid ’60s to the mid ’90s. In many instances he stretches back to the end of the war. He used thousands of polls, surveys and academic, government and corporate studies to document the countless ways social behavior has been changing. Indeed, the automobile, that allowed for and stimulated suburbanization where houses were set back, far apart and lawns, driveways and garages composed the streetview as porches disappeared, had a lot to do with it. Television also had a huge impact in impeding personal contact. Telephones too facilitated the ease in living far apart, as did cheap energy. And then along came computers and the internet which may be pounding in the last nail in our coffin of isolation. Going back much further one can see capitalism, fostering competition and accumulation over co-operation and sharing, may have made inevitable today’s dissipation of community.

    1. Jim Haygood

      As you say, Putnam captured the megatrend (with thorough academic documentation and footnoting) in Bowling Alone.

      Something changed after WW II. It took a generation or two afterward for the close-knit sense of community that existed in the 1930s to fade from the scene.

      Not only business consolidation (chain stores and restaurants in place of locally-owned ones, health care networks instead of family doctors) but also government centralization (pervasive federal micromanagement in place of local autonomy) had something to do with it. Civic involvement is less meaningful when the rules are dictated from the state capital, distant Washington, or (usually) both.

      So too, likely, did the abnormal state of permanent warfare footing that’s persisted ever since we forgot to demobilize from WW II.

        1. Jagger

          —-Air conditioning and TV—

          Yes, but I would give TV the greater weight. With TV, you don’t think you need people anymore. TV is your company.

  21. Beans

    Interesting topic. I mostly disagree with the conclusion though. I think we are all exhausted – so we resort to our technology, which doesn’t require much of what little energy we have left. By the time I work all day, cook dinner, help kids with homework and get them to bed, there is nothing left in the tank. Having a friend means being a friend, and the reality is, I don’t make a very good friend.
    That said, our family decided to take active steps to live differently – with the goal of dialing back the energy output our current life requires. My husband quit his job to start a local business with me. My kids were removed from the public school and now attend a private school which values life beyond academics. I volunteer and participate more in my professional association. By limiting commute time, leaving time and energy sucking environments and conciously trying to deepen ties within our local community, I hope and expect that my ability to build and sustain friendships will improve.
    And if that doesn’t work, I have my NC community to fall back on!

    1. jrs

      I often think there is a choice between spending time on friendships or having a family of your own, just like there is a choice between volunteering and heavy community involvement and raising a family. Because I don’t see anyone raising kids and working around me doing much else. So choose ONE, that is if you have to work full time for a living, if not then maybe you can have it all. Of course what it means for kids to grow up in such a lonely world, not just not a village raising them, but nothing at all, is rather bleak as well.

  22. abynormal

    where’s Love without Friendship? both ‘rewards’ entail effort/work …Fromm writes:

    The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving. https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/10/29/the-art-of-loving-erich-fromm/

    1. Norb

      Thanks for bringing up Fromm. I encountered Fromm in college and fondly remember sharing hours of discussions with my college friends, sharing our impressions and meanings to the thoughts provoked by his work . I haven’t seen many of them in years because our life paths have diverged, but know beyond a doubt, that if our paths ever crossed again, we would be able to pick up precisely were we where when we first encountered these ideas and worldview. Such is the character of deep connection and understanding. It is a truth that you know beyond doubt. I’ve had similar experiences with reunions with childhood friends, recalling insignificant stories of growing up and life lessons- walking in the snow, spending hours playing hockey, a small incident running from an angry neighbor. I have this feeling that we experience moments in time that are eternal. It is a source of strength that lasts beyond time.

      The trouble I feel with our contemporary work life, is that most experiences are based on lies, and everyone knows it, but are hesitant to acknowledge the fact. So everyone pretends in a cynical manner that there is any true meaning to our daily experience. Such is the modern work experience. Craftsmanship? Dedication to a job well done? The feeling of accomplishment at the end of completing a necessary task? All being lost in the drive for profit.

  23. PQS

    Yes to Yves’ contention about too many working hours, yes to technology being a huge barrier, and yes to the burbs being very isolating.

    WRT technology, I do think this is, ahem, a generational thing. I’m in my mid forties. None of my friends or family in this age group would dream of pulling out a phone during a meetup. It’s just rude, and the mutual agreement is that we hardly ever see each other, so the face time is the purpose of the meeting! I hope the younger folks will discover this eventually (I believe they will, because biology is powerful).

    The other thing is, I get a lot of socializing at work – joking around and talking about movies or TV, or telling stories. It’s really enough for me as a relative introvert, and I hate small talk at parties, so the idea of going to one to talk about ‘nothing’ seems terrible.

  24. rivegauche

    Nothing to add to these thoughtful comments and insights except to say it is a lonely country for some of us without extended family. Feeling nostalgic for childhood days and neighborhoods full of friends and friendly acquaintances within sight of the Atlanta skyline. Many lifetimes and countless decades later I find myself in the heart of SC. Still in touch with some of those childhood neighbors-friends-classmates, thanks to social media. Many are still there but in the far suburbs of the city. But digital connections with only occasional face-to-face time don’t cut it.

    Its hard for those of us with full-time jobs, a long commute, grown children in other states with demanding careers that are our first priority when one of us has a chunk of free time, and pets at home requiring attention, our time, and our care. I’ve never included colleagues and fellow employees on Facebook like everyone else at work does; that’s for childhood friends and classmates and special interests.

    Forging and maintaining close relationships requires more than most of us have left over to give today when age has crept up on us and we’re worn out working, commuting, and running a household.

  25. oho

    anecdotal guesses….

    people don’t belong to secular clubs anymore—not like people supposedly did in the 50’s or in Germany now.

    The destruction of the 9 to 5/M-F schedule at all levels of work. Long, decentralized commutes are the norm. Long-distance moves.

    internet allows people to find/form “long-tail” clubs—niche interests that you might not have pursued as vigorously in 1955.

  26. ben

    Frankly I’m disgusted you even took the time to write this. We should always think “how does this benefit the rentiers?”. I don’t see how this article does that. Get back to work because the rentiers need feeding.

    1. abynormal

      and who do you think structurally creates isolation?
      i can’t afford to meet a friend for coffee, can’t afford to get there AND can’t afford to invite them over as every morsel is accounted for.
      Rentiers got us right where they need us for continuing the largest transfer of wealth the world has ever experienced!

      “The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.”

      Wendell Berry

    2. chris

      Renters want a market of unsatisfied consumers, not satisfied producers, which is what friendships create.

    1. Quentin

      MT is of course the Mother Goddess of the neoliberal nightmare we’re experiencing today, the fine blend of financial and emotional panic. She was a robust lady, to say the least. Her friend RR could hardly hold a candle to her.

  27. MimiL

    I like this article. I think it very much applies. I see this article as valuable because it addresses the way we relate to each other as a community.

    That can be essential to survival and after all isn’t that what NC is essentially about, surviving in the face of this financial chaos which has taken over.

    I grew up in a rather poor neighborhood, officially it was student housing but they accepted Section 8 and so it was filled with single mothers.

    There were all different races but what I remember of those times (the 70’s and early 80’s) was that the single mothers would help each other, watch each other’s kids at times and my mom (whose parents owned a farm a few states away) would share the farm produce my grandparents sent back with us after a visit.

    I’m in the middle class now. There were, at one point, 11 stay at home mothers on my street and to my knowledge not one of them has ever offered to look after each others kids or had anything that looks remotely like a close relationship with each other. Even the kids barely play with each other.

    I see this life I live now as one of competition over too much: academic, sports, materialism. I too see the FOMO all the time (not just on Facebook either).

    I miss the poor neighborhood I grew up in. I don’t miss being poor of course because that was a lot of hardship. Certainly I romanticize it but I played outside with the numerous children that were found easily in my kid-overrun apartment complex. My kids watch cable and play video games. We have a big backyard that doesn’t get a lot of use.

    In my childhood my parents friends all came from church with the occasional co-worker thrown in.

    These days my husband’s friend are all people he knew back in high school.

    I’m working on making more friends from outside of my white, middle class life. The key for me seems to be finding my friends on the perimeter.

    I’m working to create my own Mayberry. I want people to annoyingly come over without a playdate set up first. My house will not be perfect but I’m going for authentic,not perfection.

    Keep up the great work Yves and company.

  28. Experienced

    “Friends” are a burden and potential informants. How many times on shows like 48 hrs. and Dateline the police go to a person’s neighbors and they spill their guts about everything they know? I keep my personal information personal. No personal conversations in my email. My closest friends all have died and I decided not to replace them with new ones. The worse friends you can make are from work–they are a disaster.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Dogs are man’s best friend.

      But I think cats too.

      Elephants as well.

      Giraffes – I can relate to them. Head in the clouds but feet firmly on the ground.

      1. Vince in MN

        Remember the Great Chain of Being, Man locating himself just one step below the Great Diety in this contrived hierarchical construction? Since the Age of Reason and the supercession of science over religious dogma, Man has for the most part now jettisoned that top tier, conveniently leaving him/her king of the hill; Olympians in our own right (Cronos has been usurped), with all the attendant bickering as expressed in the old Greek myths. It is good that there are a few willing to climb down from the mountain (abdicating as it were) and acknowledge their humble place in Nature, but my fear is that it is too little too late. For myself I have included most plants, animals and microscopic things in my classification of “Man’s best friends”, but I am still having great difficulties with the mouse that recently invaded my home, mosquitoes, cockroaches, politicians and financiers.

    2. hunkerdown

      You must be MAD. That is, mutually assured destruction — keep dirt on your friends, not just your enemies. Be slightly crazy: not enough to threaten, but enough to suggest a capacity for self- (or tribal) defense. Tribes (n>2) are nexi from which to excommunicate rogues — keep a tribal commons of some sort and keep a little closer with the tribe than with others.

    3. Ulysses

      “Friends” are a burden and potential informants.”

      This chilling sentence exposes the corrosive effects on humanity of the relentless neoliberal drive to monitor and monetize everything. “Why is she being so nice to me? Does she want to take my stuff? Is she a spy?”

      A society ruled by abusive and selfish oligarchs will find trust in very short supply.

  29. Quentin

    Fascinating thread. The whole world of disconnected people being connected by electrical devices began with the telephone itself more than a century ago. Who can imagine a world without a telephone? But I’d say it was the answering machine in the middle of the last century that triggered a whole new kind of communication which bred separation: control. Remember the people who didn’t answer their phones but instead listened to the voice of the caller through the answering machine in the room before deciding whether to answer the call. An early form of number recognition. Check, double check, no unwanted surprises. Control. Give me a Mark Zuckerberg and you’ve given me the antithesis to any kind of positive way forward.

  30. twonine

    “We are the lonely all together
    All together we’re all alone”
    –John Prine

    I don’t recall too many smart phones around in ’95 when this CD came out.

  31. Vince in MN

    Many good examples of the innumerable symptoms of the pain and suffering of modern living. But what of the cause?

    1. Waking Up

      If you want a “cause”, go back to 1925 when Edward Bernays brought about the public relations industry and propaganda in order to control how the public thinks. Since that time, public perception of who we are in the United States is often a myth in order to control our behaviors. What better way to “control” behaviors to your advantage (if you put greed before your fellow man) than to get people to accept that they are “consumers” instead of citizens. Propaganda has also played a major role for decades in making people fearful of others whether it’s communists, immigrants or the poor. Constantly being in “fear” of others can have a major negative impact on friendships.

  32. optimader

    Many friends and acquaintances but with some notable exceptions the close friends are mostly from highschool and college. That was the case for my folks as well. My friends can go for a several years without seeing each other and just startup where we left off. That’s the was it is w/ lifelong friends.

    My parents (WWII generation) and friends would have a party every Friday or Saturday and well into middle age would have a picnic all day on Sundays weather permitting. they would start a barrel of draught beer at the party and kill it at the Sunday picnic. Our version of “church” when I grew up.

    My friends have a tradition of hard partying to this day, vacations together ect but my parents and friends really set the standard. Sadly, they are the last two alive, everyone else has passed.

    A notable differentiation of their generation in Chicago I alluded to re:pre air conditioning, it was quite common on a hot summer night for people to go to the lakefront and sleep in the park. I think that and the general lack of money cultivated interdependencies. Conceptually, seems unbelievable now.

  33. cripes

    This is an important topic. Yeah, my mom used to “borrow a cup of sugar” from neighbors who we actually knew. NYC stoops were full of adults and kids in the summers. playing music, talking and shooting the fire hydrant with tin cans. Even NYC streets now are dead compared to then.

    Another anecdote:

    I make survey calls for a municipal health department. I have observed that the under-25’s born with a smartphone in their mouths have a special penchant for simply disconnecting the calls they don’t want. No goodbye, no call later’s, no f-you’s… Just >click<

    Now, there is less stress in it than old codgers cursing you out, but here's something creepy about shutting down a live voice on your phone with no more thought than closing an app or browser. I am sympathetic that they are screening out the overload of digital stimuli, but handling people in the same way carries real risks. Do you just iggy your mother, spouse or child when you don't feel like listening to them?

    The tech "training" they've endured since infancy disposes them to press *like* or *unfriend* on their phones, or to people that test their limited attention spans.

    I know a 4 year old child who can swipe and pinch and score on tablets, smartphones and game thingys, but can't speak well enough to be understood. She has grown up self-learning how to interact with effing screens, and can't do it with adults or other children at her age level. The sister is locked in her room with the PC, and Mom is always on the smartphone. To take a break, they sit in the living room and watch the "smart" TVand waving the remote around.

    I guess I worry the technology encourages a habit of dealing with inanimate objects that are only there when you want them, and transfers that isolating habit into your diminishing relationships with people.

    This will not end well.

  34. Jesper

    Some of it might be related to the: Devil makes works for idle hands….
    If you have time for friends then your hands are idle or?

    Worst ‘sin’ of today is not having action planned and action ‘actioned’ (horrible word) so anyone just spending time and enjoying the time spent with a friend is a?

    Anyone who has ever experience difficulties in their lives might know the difference between a friend and an acquaintance, The friend is still around but the liberal/anarchist acquaintance is cutting off the tie of ‘friendship’ faster than a naive person might have reason to expect…. Some bitterness? Yes. Being more careful about who are friends? Also yes. More cynical and less likely to make friends? Hopefully not.

  35. Adam Eran

    A recommended remedy for this is a “Neighborhood Watch”… (It doesn’t have to be a formal, police-sanctioned one). Make a map of the building or neighborhood, and collect neighbors’ phone numbers, then share the map with the neighbors. This actually does make the neighborhood safer, and makes for a lot of human contact. And if you catch someone siphoning gas, or making mischief, you don’t have to confront them alone; you can call a neighbor.

  36. Schnormal

    When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, with the same twist to their faces.

    The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

    -David Foster Wallace, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”

    For me DFW’s writings are key to understanding the US and all its varieties of crazy. Maybe because he knew it so well — he grew up in the Midwest, came up in the Northeast, and settled in California. RIP man

  37. ThePensum

    I too disagree with the issue that suburbanization led to the decline in friendships. I grew up in suburbia and made great friends (ok, as a kid admittedly). Living in inner Sydney (basically the CBD) surrounded by people I made few friends there. Same with New York, aside from the work clique. It doesn’t seem like suburbia is a culprit.

  38. HayeksHeelbiter

    Yaayyy! Double yaaay! Infinite yaay!

    Thank you, Yves for pointing out what is obvious to the most casual observer but remains as unnoticed as the proverbial elephant.

    Cannot recommend Wednesday Martin’s book, PRIMATES OF THE UPPER EAST SIDE, enough, particularly her section on the differences between hunter-gather societies (older children raising younger children resulting in mixed age groups and children being giving a sense of responsibility and belonging from an early age) and contemporary Mommy culture, each children receiving a share of Mommy’s attention and being essentially disempurposed until graduation.

    A friend pointed out yesterday that one of the insidious effects of modern education is ferocious age stratification.

    I am of retirement age but have a huge age range of friends (one of the benefits of treading the spiritual path – didn’t help me very much in getting ahead at an extremely large and ruthless German bank that will remain nameless), but now I see my peers in increasing isolation, as their circle of peer friends recedes by death, disease and flight from an increasingly unaffordable city.


    Ps. Great line from the new Rickie Lee Jones documentary about the making of her new album, THE OTHER SIDE OF DESIRE. Even a premier artist like her found that her “friends” never had enough time to get together with her. As she said, “They were so busy and so alone.”

  39. SocietalIllusions

    three cheers to this article and the insightful and considered comments. I expect Yves and Lambert are proud of how this post has been responded to and applaud the efforts that have led here.

  40. Quantum Future

    Great articles between this one and Michael Hudson’s article.

    Our culture has always been attuned more toward commerce from what see. However, values are at a cyclical low. So making friends is a trust issue. The phones are just leashes to put minimize risks of feelings of rejection, anger or stress that can come with face to face interaction. Also correlated is the comments about dogs and leashes. Dogs dont inimidate, humilate or wrongly judge you.

    As for money balance between public and private power, central banking is just a fig leaf for politicians. As a model it has conquered the earth. The problem is bankers make loans, they are great at intelligence gathering always seeing the flow and most times the trends in advance. But with todays computing power this can be done without them.

    As astute commentator noted on that thread, financiers have no national loyalty. Napolean Bonaparte learned this the hard way.

    If we want a government that doesnt sell out or at least has better brakes toward such an inevitablily, you increase representation to make it prohibitively expensive to buy off. Lobbying should be called treason written in law and punishable by death. Trading on markets during office and five years after is another important brake.

    And yes very importantly the government runs the money supply so banks cant print up the money to buy off politicians. I would add term limits but if these three things were done people would not want to make public service a lifelong career. There would be no revolving door.

    As it is likely we are going to see another world war because of the lack of such brakes in our current model, the time to move toward this is now but probably cannot be completed until post apocalype. Sorry to be so dry in my analysis but we as a species tend to evolve morr out of pain and second, sociopaths are the ones who pursue power the most and once held, do not relinquish it.

  41. Lune

    I grew up in American suburbs and have lived in big cities most of my life, but my family originally came from rural farming towns in India. Vacations there were eye opening. Aside from the usual comedic fish out-of-water scenarios (like functioning without running water when you’re a coddled American ten year old :-), what struck me is the difference in social interactions. People truly knew everyone in town, and deep friendships and social interaction were the norm. For example, despite my being a fish out of water, my parents wouldn’t care that I’d spend all day playing with my new buddies all around the village. Heck, if I missed dinnertime, more likely than not, it was because one of the neighbors pulled our little gang in to have dinner with them.

    Later vacations, when I got older, I remember watching TV indoors and my Dad or Uncle telling me to go sit outdoors if I was bored. Sure enough, within 5 minutes of sitting outside reading a newspaper, people would stop by and strike up a conversation, guys coming back from the fields on tractors would stop and tell you how the harvesting was going, etc. Indeed, when you build a house in rural India, it’s customary to include a built-in bench on the front and back walls for people (and not just the owners) to sit and hang out.

    If I had to pick the most important factors for this massive difference, I’d pick 3: 1) Little mobility. For better or worse, people stayed put for lifetimes. This allowed deep connections to form spanning generations. 2) Lots of free time. People worked hard and the jobs were physical, but they did seem to have much more free time. Especially the ones not working the fields (women staying at home, the young and the elderly). 3) Lack of other distractions. Forget about the internet. The grandmas and grandpas lamented the proliferation of TV which meant everyone stayed indoors watching their favorite serials rather than coming outside and gossiping (this despite the fact that if you were walking by a house and heard an interesting movie playing on the TV, it was totally fine to just walk in, sit down, and watch the movie with everyone else).

    Interestingly, I think this plays into the red-state/blue-state, or more accurately, red-rural, blue-urban divide in America. Blue urbanites don’t expect their neighbors to provide a social safety net, so calls to eliminate gov’t provided welfare services seems cruel. OTOH, red rural folk can’t fathom that people would really let their neighbors starve, and so figure all these govt services are unnecessary. IMHO, well-meaning members of both groups genuinely want to help people down on their luck, but their environment dictates how they view the different solutions.

  42. JoeRenter

    Seattle. I been here about 30 years now coming via Alaska after having been brought up in Central California.It seems I do a lot of looking back and thinking I am glad lived where I did x amount of years ago. Santa Cruz CA was a great place to be from 64 to 84 and Seattle was also a nice city to be in until the last several years. It had growth here was has not been matched since the gold rush. From July 2012 to July 2013 there was a 2.8% percent growth brings 18,000 more people to the city. July 2013 to July 2014 the rate dropped a little to 2.5 % percent or 15.000 more bodies.
    Increase of rents has been driving thousands more to being homeless. The traffic is not pleasant. High tech hiring has lead to the expansion for a large part. Read amazon.
    Many the the people I come in contact with who have been living here more some time comment on what the changes has done, for what we thought was special about this area. Not any different than the change that has happened in many cities that experience such a transition. I am leaving for Mexico City this week for a vacation. It is what, 11 times larger than Seattle? Maybe this will put things in perspective. First world problems are a luxury.

    1. Christian B

      Horses Hoofs – Chuang Tzu

      Horses can with their hoofs tread on the hoarfrost and snow, and with their hair withstand the wind and cold; they feed on the grass and drink water; they prance with their legs and leap:– this is the true nature of horses. Though there were made for them grand towers and large dormitories, they would prefer not to use them. But when Po-lâo (arose and) said, ‘I know well how to manage horses,’ (men proceeded) to singe and mark them, to clip their hair, to pare their hoofs, to halter their heads, to bridle them and hobble them, and to confine them in stables and corrals. (When subjected to this treatment), two or three in every ten of them died. (Men proceeded further) to subject them to hunger and thirst, to gallop them and race them, and to make them go together in regular order. In front were the evils of the bit and ornamented breastbands, and behind were the terrors of the whip and switch. (When so treated), more than half of them died.

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