November 9, 2015 5 Comments
Loved this Vox post on how the physical spaces (and the policies behind them) in which we live, militate against adult friendships.
Why do we form such strong friendships in college and form so few afterward?
I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was this: The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. [emphasis in original] That’s why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.
Some of this natural social mixing follows us to post-collegiate life. We bond with people we work with every day and the people who share our rented homes and apartments.
But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.
Thus, seeing friends, even friends within “striking distance,” requires planning. “We should really get together!” We say it, but we know it means calls and emails, finding an evening free of work, possibly babysitters. We know it would be fun, but it’s so much easier just to settle in for a little TV.
Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you? …
There are basically two ways to have regular, spontaneous encounters with people. Both are rare in America.
One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist…
The second, even more rare, is some form of co-housing…
Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.
But I do not think we should just accept that when we marry and start families, we atomize, and our friendships, like our taste in music, freeze where they were in college. We shouldn’t just accept a way of living that makes interactions with neighbors and friends a burden that requires special planning.
We should recognize that by shrinking our network of strong social ties to our immediate families, we lose something important to our health and social identities, with the predictable result that we are ridden with anxiety and loneliness. We are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us…
But we can do something about the places where we live. We can make them more conducive to community and spontaneous social mixing. We know how to do it — it’s just a matter of agreeing that we need it and changing policy accordingly.
Yes! First, a bone to pick. Our neighborhoods are totally safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. Please. My neighborhood now is physically just like the one I grew up in full of kids frolicking. The difference is the parents. In fact, the neighborhood in which I frolicked is still there, of course, and I never see any kids frolicking in it.
That said, the larger points are pretty spot on. As an extrovert who loves spontaneous interactions, I find this especially frustrating. There’s a family a couple doors up he are quite happy for spontaneous interaction when their son is playing in their front yard, but otherwise forget it. And that’s about it. A few years ago we had some friends who we could literally drop in on when we walked by with the dog. It was awesome. And then they moved away and I figured they’d be irreplaceable– I was right.
I don’t doubt that a fair amount of this is our built spaces and our policies, but at this point I suspect it is mostly our culture. Even if we all lived in places that encouraged more spontaneous interaction, at this point so many people think every damn interaction (especially for their kids) needs to be planned. And the more everybody thinks this way, the harder it is to violate these norms and have some friends you can just drop in in (like Elaine and George dropping in on Jerry!).
Personally, I’m fortunate to have some good friends at work with whom I can have spontaneous interactions, but I sure wish I had that in my neighborhood, too. Damn modern American life.