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    Tuesday, January 31, 2006

    Have You Visited a Friend This Week?

    On the current crisis in friend visitation:

    ... A new study finds that visiting friends has been declining for the past 30 years, while visiting relatives has been declining for 20 years. ...

    Analyzing data from the General Social Survey, funded by the National Science Foundation, he tracked social interaction between 1972 and 2002. The survey defines social interaction as visiting friends or family in homes or other locations.

    Mr. Saffer traces much of the decline to three factors: Americans are generally becoming better educated; they work longer hours; and the nation is more urban than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Rural people, he explains, "tend to have more social interaction, out of necessity."

    The data reveal other patterns as well. Older people have less social interaction, while single men typically socialize more. And blacks are more likely than others to visit relatives and neighborhood friends.

    Marriage brings changes, too. People who are married are likely to build their social lives around their spouse and spend less time with relatives and friends. Having children at home also changes social dynamics. These families tend to reduce their visits with friends but increase visits with grandparents.

    But perhaps the greatest shifts in social patterns occur in the workplace. "People spend more time at work and have more friendships and interactions there than they would have had in the past," Saffer says. "To some extent it replaces other kinds of friendships that people would have had outside of work." ...

    No one can claim that 21st-century Americans are less caring or less interested in maintaining "good feelings between members of society." Our lives simply take different forms. We spend less time at home. Even when we're there, we're not always ready to welcome guests. We fret that the house isn't picked up, the refrigerator isn't stocked, and there's no time to cook or clean.

    And who can say that electronic communications don't serve as a valid substitute? From voice mail and e-mail to instant messaging and text messaging, we're never out of touch. Perhaps it's a trade-off - fewer personal contacts but more high-tech connections.

    Still, something has been lost. Social interaction is believed to affect both physical and mental health, Saffer notes. Nothing can take the place of gathering around a table or a TV set with family or friends, sharing food and conversation.

    Saffer missed one major factor- people don't live in the same place as long and so don't become as dependent on the friends and family they have wherever they're living. When you live in the same place your whole life, you friends can become like family and your family can become even more tightly knit. You do everything together. But, when you uproot your life and go somewhere where you know no one or few people, you make due with what you have: if that's your kids or your partner or your computer and phone. Living in New York, I see this with a lot of people who still talk frequently to the friends and family they grew up with, but have a hard time getting themselves out of the house to see new friends because it takes a bit more effort to see people with whom you're less intimate. I think that education comes in here: People have their friends from high school and before. Now, instead of staying in that town and getting a job, more and more middle-class and working-class people are going to college, some of them are actually leaving the town or the state for college, and they make new friends there. Then, they leave college and get a job in yet another place and make friends there. Then, they might get a job elsewhere. Etc, etc, etc. And it's much more rare for people to live near family (though I read somewhere that I can't find right now that Gen X is moving back to be near parents and stuff more).

    My sister and her friends didn't go to college and so her best friends growing up are mostly her best friends now and they now live in the same town, having added a couple of new people from their various jobs to the gang.

    I'd also like to take a moment to blame that evil feminism. Now that more women work full-time, there's no one to facilitate, clean-up for and after, cook for, these little gatherings with friends and family. You kind of need a housewife to have the house constantly looking presentable and making sure you have coffee made and tea on hand.

    And, yes, there is the lure of the Internet and television. If your friends aren't wicked smart, you might prefer the company of Andrew Sullivan's blog, because he is. If your friends aren't seriously hot, you might prefer the company of the cast of The OC because they are. If your friends aren't way funny, you might just want to pop in your Chris Rock DVD. It's hard for anyone to compete with the cream of the crop all the time.

    But the main reason I felt the need to comment on this article was the study's finding that young single men are more social than young single women. And it made perfect sense to me. I've discussed this a bit before but I think that there is so much pressure on women's friendships. Men can just go bowl together and don't think there's something wrong with it. But I find that, if I spend too much time with a female friend talking politics or something, that I feel a little guilty. I'm having a good time, but there is this sort of expectation that we should be talking about deeply personal things. If a guy's friend goes through a bad breakup, there's not all this pressure to go stuff him silly with ice cream or some garbage while you listen to him cry and pore over everything that could have gone wrong. You just chill. So, even if guys are wishing their friendships were closer and that they could talk about personal things more, they still don't have to dredge up nearly as much energy after a long day to sit around and play video games as you do to pour your heart out or give the right feedback to someone who's pouring hers. Women are supposed to have friends to help them survive the patriarchy and men are supposed to have friends to help them perpetuate it or ignore it.


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