Sunday, June 25, 2006

Why Do We Have Fewer Friends?

On the CBS Evening News on Friday, there was a report entitled "Is Your Circle of Friends Shrinking?" In short, a study shows that on average, Americans have one less true friend as we might have had 20 years ago. The report suggested that perhaps it's the internet, all our techno-gadgets and our over-worked lifestyles that are keeping us from meaningful friendships. So, what do you think? Are these the causes? Let's look at the first two...

So are cell phones, email, iPods, PDA's, text messengers and the internet "causing" us to have fewer friends? I think there's no doubt that they are having an effect on society, but I don't think they're to blame. In reality, I say they're a symptom, not a cause. The popularity of long-distance, anywhere social communication is growing because of societal changes, not the other way around. We want to keep people at a distance. We don't want the possible problems and embarrassment of talking to someone while looking them in the eye. And why the heck might that be? In a word, fear.

What about our work schedules? John and Jane have two hour commutes and five-jobs-in-one, how can they find and keep friends? Hey, that's totally true. To keep our jobs these days we have to work longer hours than ever and many of us have to take lower wages. Lower wages means we either have to move to another company or stick it out. Either way, we're commuting farther than ever. It's tough to hang out on a Friday night when you don't get home until 8pm and can't think straight enough to make dinner let alone call up your buds. I'd love it if we could somehow stand up to these employers and say "Hey, we can't keep killing ourselves like this. Please hire some more people," but what can you do? You've got to eat, pay bills and pay down your debt, right? I guess we have to find ways to make time for friends though. It's that important to our mental, emotional (and thusly physical) well being to be able to talk and relate to people in the flesh that we have to choose to do something about it. One good friend I made was a coworker and we didn't have much time to hang out so, we often car pooled. Of course, you can't force it, but you do need to put yourself in a place, at a point when you feel you can, where you might find a like-minded person (parties, user groups, coffee houses, etc). So, I think our work schedule is far closer to causing our lack of good friends than gadgetry, but it can still be surmounted with some solid time management. If that's the case, then perhaps it's a symptom as well? Some of us work more so we don't have to think about what we're not doing. Perhaps this also stems from fear? What is this whole fear thing anyhow?

Perhaps from one side, we now have access to a world of information and are constantly bombarded with bad news. That makes it easy to get overwhelmed by the negative. Meanwhile, from the other side perhaps there was a lack of guidance in our formative years which has led to gaps in our knowledge and preparedness for processing all this information especially when it comes to relationships. Our knowledge of and interest in emotional, moral, physical and social boundaries is severely lacking. Borne out of this bombardment from one side and lack of guidance from the other is apathy-- indifferent people who act like they own the place, wherever they are. They talk loudly on cell phones anywhere; walk, stand and sit in the way of cars, bikes and other people without a care; they cut you off in a car without looking and cut you off in a conversation without thinking. They feel they have the right to do whatever they care to so, nothing is their fault or responsibility. (Although, no one else is allowed to make a mistake). Much of the time they spend with friends is spent on the phone instead. And when they say they're going to call their friends, they don't. People disrespect, lie to, hide true feelings from and purposely hurt themselves! Add cheating, stealing and USING and that's how they treat their 'friends.' Who in their right mind would want to be friends with someone like that? This is not everyone (thankfully!), but this kind of behavior is not rare. I thought it was bad when our society was all about the next quick high, but now it looks as though it's all about just doing... whatever. Complete obliviousness. Phrases of our fathers like "think before you act" and "look before you leap" seem to have never been said. The words of our mothers like "mind your P's and Q's" seem to have been skipped. Children command their parents. Expectation has replaced etiquette. It's not "what can I do for you?" it's "what can you do for me?" The somewhat subtle differences in tone between "how can I help you" and "what do you want" are lost. There is no doubt that our lifestyle is increasing the distance between us, but the greater cause is the fear of being treated like crap! Funny thing is, a generation ago, this wasn't the case.

Have you known many of your parent's or grandparent's good friends? You would think that these WWII or Vietnam era folks fought on the front lines together the way they look out for each other. Of course, sometimes they did! But I tell you, you can feel the respect and concern even without words. Grandma can call her friend and ask for help and the next thing you know, the friend is knocking on the door. Probably the most amazing thing to me though, is that respect. No one pushes, no one pulls. No one pries or digs for dirt... not about each other anyhow. They just love and cherish each other and are comfortable in one and other's presence... even if they argue to create a little drama. Now that's friendship.

I think we need to bring this back. Sure it's a global economy and there's all crazy ways to get word out, but that's no reason why we can't connect on a personal level. Without friends we'll stop learning about ourselves and about each other. Without love and intimacy, we'll wilt and die. Words on a computer screen are the result of a temporary gathering of electrons. That can never be anything more than superficial. No matter how deep down in the heart those pixels are supposed to be from, they are nothing until they're backed up in person. So get out there and be friendly! Be neighborly! Wave and smile at strangers. Learn your bus driver's name. A very wise person taught me that there is no limit to the love inside all of us and that you have to start by loving yourself. Sounds hokey perhaps, but I've found it to be true. We can turn this thing around! So say I, what say ye?

Thanks to all my friends out there! I know I'm guilty of acting like a jerk at times so, thanks for your patience.

This entry originally appeared in my Myspace blog. Here are the comments as posted:

Posted by B on Saturday, July 01, 2006 at 12:34 PM
Well put Ben. I completely agree. Nothing can take the place of the human aspect. Not the internet, or any other future advance form of technology. I just felt that technology cannot simply be labeled as the culprit that led to the fewer friends in the first place. And I sense you are in agreement with me on that one.

So, lets leave it with a different analogy. Not a Symptom, Not a Cause, and Not a Cure. Perhaps we can call it a form of Life Support. Keeping the friendship alive and breathing when the passage of time and great distance prevents the ever so important human presence from occurring. Sound good?

Posted by Ben'jamin on Sunday, July 02, 2006 at 12:40 PM
Thanks B, I cant totally agree, but I do see what you mean. I think that there is a possibility that technology and our work schedules are in part a symptom of fear and our lack of confidants, although I agree that its not the case for everyone. But, the ROOT question here isnt just about that, its the question as to whether we really DO have fewer confidants. And if so, why and how do we fix it (because at least you and I agree that fixing it is necessary). How about the other points in my original entry not directly involving an escape into technology? Are we degrading into a do before you think society? If we do have fewer confidants is it because were afraid we'll be treated like crap?

Posted by B on Thursday, July 06, 2006 at 4:39 PM
There are a lot of different ways I could go with this, and to be honest I am not even sure where to start. In fact, I feel limited by the keyboard in front of me from really responding here. Perhaps a good example of what you were referring to earlier. Anyway, I did read over everything from the beginning, and for the most part, I am in complete agreement with you. I'll mention the points that ring most true for me, and then maybe a little bit of where I differ (you know i gotta play devil's advocate).

"The Do before you think society"

Unfortunately I agree. It's pretty sad too. Like you said above: Nothing is their fault or responsibility ... Expectation replacing Etiquette ... and No One thinking before they act. I see this all around me, and it makes me sick. And you are right about past generations being nothing like this. But how do we remedy this or is it too late?

The only place where I disagree is that i don't blame the internet, cellphones, or whatever new ipod is on the market. I blame the parents. Children are a product of their home environment, and if you got lazy ass parents who don't give a damn ... well you got a whole generation of kids doing the same. But that's a whole different discussion all together.

"The Crazy Work Schedule"

Yup, nothing like a good 9-5 routine to really tear at a friendship. I too have made friends at the office, but what about those that came before the job. I used to be in really good contact with my buds from college but each year the communication gets less and less and I think that the fact of us all having different jobs with different schedules has a lot to do with it. But what can be done about this? We got bills to pay right? And although e-mail is keeping our friendship on "life support" ... its only a matter of time till the plug gets pulled if you know what I mean.


This is what I'm not so sure about. Afraid to make friends? or Afraid to keep em? or Afraid of something else? I am not quite following you completely on this, and perhaps I could use a little further explanation on your part before I give my opinion. Because i got one cookin on the burner, but I just want to make sure I'm in the right kitchen.

So to finish up. I agree. We do have fewer friends. And all I need to do is look in the mirror for an example of that. Whether it be the combination of today's society or work schedules ... well ... I think that varies with each person. Everybody has their own issues or reasons. But the fact remains, the circle is shrinking, and its up to the individual to decide if they are comfortable with those diminishing numbers.

Posted by Ben'jamin on Tuesday, July 11, 2006 at 11:43 AM
Thanks B. Ah-ha, but we DO agree! I don't think technology is the cause either, I just think its rise in POPULARITY is evidence that we're not trying as hard to make and keep close friends. Listening to tunes on the bus is nothing new, heck I did it when I was in college. The thing is, I was the only one doing it. Now, there are many more people tuning in to devices and not mixing with the folks around them. Uncomfortable chit-chat that might just make your day... you know, like finding out that lady beside you is actually a dude... is lost. Chatting online with strangers more than you talk to your friends is also something that has gained popularity. Overall, technology does have an effect on society but, like you're saying, if the quality of parenting was there, it could not have an ill effect. Since the parenting is indeed poor, technology has become a distraction and an excuse. Everything in Moderation is becoming Everything in Excess.

Can we pull out of this dive to doomsville? Hmm. First step in problem solving, identify the problem. What was the situation that led to today's poor parents? I think the latter half of the Baby Boomer Generation marks the decline. Civil rights, the anti war movement and women's lib were huge societal changes. My parents were of the first half of the Boomers, the "Hippies," who railed against any establishment, but still tried to teach their children solid values. However, the second half of their generation represents a conservative backlash which became the "Yuppies." This is where everything gets interesting. After a time of relative piece following Vietnam, it was like all of a sudden we had freedom AND money. I'd have to research it to say for sure, but I think this was the real birth of Corporate America and we entered what became known as the Excessive 80's. Yuppies were all about being everything to everyone and wanted to attain an extravagant lifestyle by any means necessary. With the supposed rules for women rightfully dashed, they also left the home and pursued the high life. With parents so busy with work and parties, they left the parenting to schools, nannies and TV. With the Yuppies came increases in divorce, binge drinking, alcoholism, violent crime, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, abortion, pornography, cocaine and crack use, credit cards, bank loans, inflation and the national debt. WOW! It's sure is something to line all that up (and I'm sure I'm missing a lot). So, like you said B, they were lazy/absent parents and their children grew up to repeat the process (described at length above). Can we fix it? I'm thinking so. How? I have no idea! Robert Frost might say one way is to be a good neighbor. These days it's like we're all keeping an eye out for pedophiles and terrorists. We're all closed up and suspicious; focused on the negative possibilities (and don't realize that being open and confident scares off many kinds of criminals). Personally, I've learned to combat this pervasive dark mood with a smile and a wave. I learned it from an elderly couple on their morning stroll who I used to pass every day on the way to work (they wave at every car and why not?).

Now, since you asked if there is anything we can do, I'm going to go out on a limb here and share one of the problems I think exists and partial remedy I believe in. Focusing on the negative isn't something new, but I think it's more popular especially since 9-11. Right now we're bombarded with bad news about war, scandal, disease and obesity and most of the shows on TV are serious cop shows and courtroom dramas about heinous crimes with gross imagery. The movie theater has been packed with serious dramas and it seems the fun films haven't been able to break the trend like Star Wars did in the 70's. Even comic books over the last 10-15 years have been darker. Cartoons on TV for girls like "Bratts" are showing girls unhealthy habits. More video games go farther into senseless violence and deviant behavior. Much of the popular music today is all about ME and no longer about US. I'm not saying that any of these things should stop or that they are the cause of the general degradation of society, but I do think they affect us at least in little ways. The Toltecs tell us that words have power. If you repeatedly call yourself stupid, you're apt to believe it. We're exposed to more information than ever and I think filling our day with harsh news and unhealthy habits is having an effect on all of us an especially on those who are not equipped to deal with it. Why should we keep submitting ourselves to all these negative vibes? I think the news is important, but we have to be able to process it. Cop shows on TV and hard hitting dramas on the big screen are fine, but why not invest in more fun shows and movies? Great Scott! Wedding Crashers did AMAZINGLY at the box office last summer! Isn't that telling us something? And I guess that somewhere in the fun we fit in the healthy little lessons that we have been missing, we put in a little inspiration and we cultivate a little optimism. I mean, when I was a kid, the shows and films blew my mind. Star Trek, Doctor Who, MacGyver, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future-- those are like candy to the overactive imagination! What have kids had lately? 2 Fast 2 Furious? Law and Order SVU? I'm certainly not saying there's no fun content out there, there's Stargate SG-1, Num3ers, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings, Superman to name a few, but we need MORE. Dramatic content is most definitely necessary and there is some great stuff out there. I just think a little more focusing on the good side of humanity might help us out. Too much drama and I think people start emulating it-- even soap opera drama. So, what I'm saying is if we can avoid being overwhelmed by negativity, it may allow us to open up and find the solutions to our problems/issues. Terry Goodkind repeats the lesson in his novels that in order to solve a problem you ultimately have to focus on solving it or you'll dwell on the problem itself and get overwhelmed. An unfortunate and wide spread example is beating yourself up because you're overweight. Heck, I've done it! But, beating yourself up is only going to make matters worse. We have to look beyond our perception and see the reality. Reality is what you make it and it's important that you alone control it. Media, corporations, businesses, governments and all the people you associate with have the power to influence your perception and that's why it's so important that you find yourself, you find your own reality and then you can identify and filter these attempts to influence you. So, I say it MAY help if we stop surrounding ourselves with negativity and emphasize a little more on the positive. Suddenly I feel like an old Disney movie. If we all spend less time cultivating the dark seeds of doom and creating drama with our loved ones, then think of all the time we'll free up for enjoying life instead!

Almost forgot this part... "Fear"
By fear I mean afraid to stick your neck out for fear of it getting chopped off. Fear of going out to make new friends and sabotaging the relationships we have. In a chat room or IM, you can release as little or as much information as you wish anonymously and without any risk. And to someone who us afraid of groups, intimacy, the unknown etc, that's very attractive. At times, I've had friends who spent more time talking online than with their friends. They also eventually stopped of their own volition telling me that it's kind of an addiction. I'd venture that what they sort of get addicted' to is simply the thrill you get when meeting new people and when you think someone is listening and understanding. Real communication is a thrilling thing. One reason why the beginning of any kind of relationship is so thrilling is probably because you're communicating with a new person (and all your old jokes are new again!). But OH NO when they turn around and kick you in the shins! Online, it can certainly sting when something goes arwy, but even so, in real life it's always worse. I think most of us have been cheated on, dumped on an excuse, blamed for things we have no control over, we didn't do or didn't know we did/for not being omniscient as well as used, ditched, ignored, blamed for not keeping in touch and stabbed in the back. And it's only natural when you're treated like this (and/or hear horror stories) to be afraid of it happening again. Because of poor parenting, more than ever personal borders are all messed up and emotional issues abound. And a lot of people take it out on their friends and lovers. We repeat our unidentified mistakes, lay booby-traps and stealthily sabotage our relationships and then conveniently blame it on others in an unhealthy cycle. Sometimes I guess we're more afraid of a relationship actually working out than it failing. Or, perhaps instead of simply ending a relationship we don't believe is for the best, we feel the need to twist it and make it the other's fault and end it in a horrible train wreck of emotions (READ: Drama). I can't say I blame anyone for being afraid of that and turning to alternate methods to try and get some companionship, but it's simply SO important that we do connect with others on a personal level. We have to stick our necks out so, hopefully we can realize that we humans are in this together.

Posted by Kevin on Wednesday, August 02, 2006 at 1:23 PM
Robert Putnam wrote a book about this phenomenon a few years ago called Bowling Alone. He describes how this decline in social capital is problematic not only at an individual level, but is a troubling factor in the way that it can weaken a democracy as well.

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