Although most people don’t consider themselves isolated or friendless, 1/4 of Americans say they don’t have even a single close friend (according to a study reported in USA Today, June 23, 2006). This is a change from just 20 years ago when only 10% reported having no close friendships. Maybe our expectations have changed. Maybe we don’t expect friends to take the time to listen or to have the skills to help us reflect on our problems. But if not, why not?
In the 1970s my husband was on the baseball team at Stanford and when the team traveled to another university for a game, the guys spent their time on the bus talking together. About what? He doesn’t remember. But there was nothing else for them to do. Without ipods and laptops, these guys were forced to use each other to pass the time and build the camaraderie that cemented friendships he has to this day.
He went back for a Stanford reunion last year and saw something that alarmed him: When the football team got off the bus, they weren’t talking or laughing; they were all plugged into ipods. None of them seemed connected with each other. He imagined they spent the entire duration of the trip alone in their own world of music rather than goofing around, strategizing, learning more about each other, in other words, creating bonds that would last beyond their time as college athletes. He felt saddened for them. How would kids from the suburbs and those from blighted urban areas bridge the gap among themselves if they didn’t find more common ground than what was underneath their feet during a game?
How does technology affect our friendships and even our ability to know how to be a good friend? If what used to be a natural alignment such as teammates can be broken by a pocket-sized white rectangle that puts us in a bubble, how are we to reach out or be reached out to? Even taking the bus to work used to involve seeing the same people every day, affording us an opportunity to reach out to our neighbors and develop connections. Today, on a typical bus ride during commute hours, more than likely we will be on our cell phone or plunking at our laptop keyboard, using the bus as our mobile office (or catching up on sleep). We’re working longer and harder and the price we pay is increased isolation.
With online chat rooms and dating services, text messaging, and email, we can “exclude the wrong people” and avoid “wasting time.” But how many of us who are happy in a relationship would have picked our mates out of a line up? Did we really end up using the criteria we had in our minds or on paper? Does our partner really look or always behave like our wish list? Who are we overlooking by not taking the time to have a cup of coffee but instead choosing to not “wink” back at?
What can we do about this trend? And do we want to do it? Is it simply more efficient to pay for therapy or coaching? The problem with relying solely on “professional friendship” is that they are not there when you need someone to pick up your child from school because your boss wants you to stay late or the car breaks down. And unfortunately, you might be afraid to bother even those you consider friends if you haven’t taken the time to nurture these relationships. Needing something in an emergency becomes an embarrassment instead of part of the pact of friendship.
But even beyond emergencies, we owe it to ourselves to have at least one or two people who are available to us without having to whip out our appointment calendars. It takes conscious effort these days. We may not live in walking distance of that special friend. We have jobs and chores and families that demand so much of our time and focus. But we need friendship perhaps today more than ever.
The fewer outside friendships, the more pressure we put on mates, who are as ill prepared and time crunched as everyone else. Many of my clients fight with their significant others more about communication or lack of it than about sex, money, or children. They complain that they never get to the real issues because they can’t find the time to talk to each other or don’t feel listened to, resulting in escalating arguments rather than solutions. Couples sometimes schedule an appointment with me just to carve out the uninterrupted time to talk or to have a mediator who will keep them from hurting each other’s feelings. My work is about teaching them to listen better, to feed back each other’s words so that they each know they are being heard objectively, and to communicate more sensitively. This takes practice--lots of it, practice we are deprived of increasingly in our technological wonderland.
So it isn’t just technology that is the problem. One of technology’s side effects is the dwindling of our social skills. It takes more than just time to be a good listener; it takes skill. One has to learn to focus one’s attention on someone else to discern and help with underlying feelings that might be too painful or embarrassing to reveal immediately. This can’t be done via text messaging or email. It is tricky enough to do on the phone when we can’t see someone’s face. Without practice or the expectation from one another that we provide this, we lose both the ability and the commitment to provide the glue that binds us as something more than acquaintances. Without deep and intimate friendships, we end up enduring, stewing in our own juices of self-doubt and self-criticism.
Nurturing friendships requires changing our routine: unplugging from the TV and computer, picking up the phone instead of emailing, sharing meals together, setting up “play dates” just as we do for kids, and most of all, slowing down long enough to listen.
If these words speak to you, call (don’t email) your friends today, acknowledge them for something, thank them for gracing you with their loyalty. A true friend is both an investment and a treasure.
Causes Jane Straus Supports
International Rescue Committee
The Southern Poverty Law Center
The Nature Conservancy