Monday, June 26, 2006

Friendship is in decline

Friendship is in decline according to a recent survey by the Universtiy of Arizona and Duke University. The study, Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, reports that 1 in 4 American adults have no one to discuss important matters.

I found the following quotes from The San Jose Mercury News intriguing:

"Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in crises such as Hurricane Katrina, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients and fewer participants in community groups. The decline, which was greatest in estimates of the number of friends outside the family, also puts added pressure on spouses, families and counselors."

The article points out how friendship is tied to safety:

She (study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin) speculated that social isolation may have made Hurricane Katrina worse. "The people we saw sitting on roofs after Katrina hit were probably people without close ties to someone with a car to get them out,'' she said.

She's right, said Bob Howard of the American Red Cross' Hurricane Relief Project.

"People that had friends and family were probably most likely to evacuate,'' he said.

While exact numbers may be in question, the study shows a definate trend of decreasing resources. People are more isolated and have fewer friends and family to utilize in times of need. This decrease in emotionally intimate relationships is reported both inside and outside the family. Almost all interpersonal networking is now superficial.

I find it kind of ironic that one of the most frequent critisism against homeschooling is "socialization." Comments like, "They need friends!" and "What about the prom?" indicate a belief that school leads to friendship and connectedness. I think the opposite is true. School disconnects children from their families and from other children. More and more we see the "alone in a crowd" phenomenon, children with a pathetic need to fit it, but lacking any true relationships.

Of all my close friends, only one can I trace back to school. Note: I count someone as a close friend if I would feel comfortable calling them in the middle of the night when my car broke down and I was stranded. For the study, they asked participants to count and describe all the people with whom they had discussed matters important to them in the previous six months.

When I asked Henry this question, he responded, "Including family, work and church? It's might be a hundred." That may be a slight exageration. I think I could get 20 or 30 pretty easily, without having to think hard.

The Washington Post has an interesting article exploring the causes of the friendship decline. It is worth a look.

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Jill's world of research, reaction, and millinery said...

My reaction to the study and Ellen Goodman's editorial in the Boston Globe:
The truth as I see it is that drop by/over the fence relationships are rare (although I DO have a lovely neighbor family who do actually drop by with their too-cute-for-words year old son.) Most people that I know would very seriously hesitate to just "drop by" to discuss/explore what is on their mind, for fear of throwing a wrench into a presumed tightly compressed daily agenda.
Most will no longer make a phone call either. If they do call, and actually get someone, they often apologize for calling, saying they meant only to leave a message.

There are those who will routinely drop an email with cute animal pictures, pretty thoughts, or earnest warnings of dire scenario, with nary more than a four word intro such as:

"This is really funny!"

A few other people attempt to keep the warmth of friendship at a pleasant glow via emails and cards with this level of intimacy:

"How r you? We r fine. The weather is hot. We went to my cousin's baby's b-day party. They had cake and ice cream. We are really busy, so I'd better go".

(Reading such missives puts me into a time warp, sending me back to elementary school letter writing units, reliving memories of struggling to end the letter. Is it "sincerly" or is it "sincerely" or "your's truely/truly? A ticklish problem, thank Word for spell check.)

The fact that such notes are sent at all keeps us in a finger touch of relationship.

Delightfully, a few friends are able to express themselves brilliantly in writing. I experience the fervor of their joys, the anguish of their trials, and the haunting heaviness of their relational or career enigmas. It is a joy to read their considered thoughts as an electronic elixir which is splashed before me only after they have refined the mix of phases, words, spacing, and font, in order to convey that which they have edited, rethought, and now wish to entrusted to me.

They write fully, and deeply. And mercifully, by expressing themselves electronically, they do not have to regroup against blurted comments or unguarded facial expression from me. Written response are more thoughtful, as an outcome of allowing the time for choice words and phrases to form. It may be minutes, or hours, or a day or two before the right words are sent back. But the words and phrases, and the friendship is often much richer than could or would expressed comfortably face to face.

I will be e-mailing Goodman about her suggestion that email is a substitute for intimacy. Email is what you make it. The level of intimacy always floats with the level of communication. If the ability to discuss important matters is the definition of intimacy, then shouldn't it be the communication, and not the media, that counts?

Janine Cate said...

Email can be a tool to help people stay connected. It makes it easy to update your whole family in one message.

For example, I have an uncle with a health crisis. He sent as message to his brother and sister and copied in me and my sister. That way we knew what was going on even though we almost never see my uncle in person.