The shrinking American social network

Last night, Barb and I had dinner at the little Mexican bar/restaurant across the street. We hadn’t been, because last time we went it was an Indian place. We were the only native English-speakers in the restaurant, which wasn’t a surprise. I think it’s a good sign for a Mexican restaurant to be full of Latinos – it probably means the food is good. Which it was.

Everyone in the bar seemed to know each other. Partly it’s a small place, so many of them probably came together. But I suspect that it’s also because we have a large Spanish-speaking community right around here, and my impression is that these communities tend to keep a bit to themselves. The language barrier probably contributes to that.

Today I saw this article that tells of a study that found that Americans are more socially isolated than we were twenty years ago. We have fewer close friends now than we did in 1985.

I think it’s causing problems in our society. How many people know their next-door neighbor? The family across the street? People are social by nature, and I don’t really understand why Americans as a society have pulled away from that. Is it television? Do we turn on the tv and ignore the rest of the world? Are we spending more time in online communities? There’s probably not one answer.

But I’m curious why the Latino communities I see still have that sense of togetherness, of knowing everyone, and I’m also curious if they’re better off for it.

I know I have friends who live less than ten minutes away on foot, and I see them maybe once a month. I spend the vast majority of my time at work, or alone with Barb. And not that spending time alone with Barb is bad – it’s actually great. But maybe we’re missing something. And it will be even more important when we have kids. I think Barb and I are even ahead of the game. We both have close friends that we can turn to when we need something.

So, I don’t know what this study means, or what can be done about it. Harvard University Public Policy Professor Robert Putnam suggests in the article that flexible work schedules would allow people more time for community, but that sounds like a pretty simplistic answer. Working fewer hours a week might help, if we turned to community activities to fill the extra time. But there’s no guarantee we would. I’d love to see the construction industry start planning housing developments to be more community oriented. But we can hardly put the responsibility on them, as much as they might make an easy target in these days of over-development.

Anyway, go out and meet your neighbor. Offer him a beer or a cup of coffee. Or maybe brush up on your Spanish and head to the local Mexican bar. And don’t work so much. Tell your boss some guy from Harvard said so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *