Modern Friendships and Isolation

A good piece in the New York Times. I talk often about the contribution of technology and busyness to hyper-individualism and the growing isolation of people in our society. Here is a contribution to the growing social debate; a debate which I think has great significance for the Church. Hat-tip to Titus1:9
July 16, 2006
The Way We Live Now:
Confidant Crisis


By now, I bet almost everybody knows somebody who has joined a social networking Web site like, with more than 90 million members, or, a college-based Web site that has become a high-school favorite, too. That means most people probably also know that “friend” is no longer just a noun, but a verb, one that entails minimal exertion: “to friend” a person involves an exchange of mouse clicks, one to request a spot on someone’s (often very lengthy) list of people granted access to his or her online profile, and a click in response to accept the petitioner. If you’re too old and busy to be logging on obsessively to this Internet social scene, you’re doubtless enmeshed in your own way, e-mailing far-flung acquaintances or anticipating the spread of free Internet telephone service.

Americans, in other words, aren’t exactly suffering from anomie. If anything, a surfeit of connectivity is the curse of the moment. (Take a trip in a nonquiet Amtrak car if you want vivid evidence.) No wonder a recent study, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades,” published in the latest American Sociological Review, made it into the headlines and onto “Good Morning America.” Here was surprising news that touched a nerve. Who would have guessed, in our gabby tell-all culture, that people interviewed in the 2004 General Social Survey would report an average of only two “core” confidants with whom they “discuss important matters,” down from the mean of three close ties elicited by the same question in 1985? Just as startling, given an ever more interwoven world, was the decline in the percentage of Americans — to 57 percent from 80 percent — who named at least one non-kin person as part of this inner circle.
The media, predictably enough, were spooked by the specter of “social isolation”: though we may bowl alone, we’re always ready to join a chorus of concern about fraying communities. But before rushing to conclude that Americans have simply gotten lonelier and more insular, why not consider another possibility? Perhaps, as the study’s authors themselves hint at one point, we’ve also gotten better at demarcating what constitutes truly intimate communing — expecting more of our confidants, we have, in effect, defined intimacy up. That is not exactly what you would expect in an era of constant communicating. Yet could it be precisely because we’re more plugged in to a disparate array of people who supply us with information when we need it, offer advice and keep us intermittent company, that our standard of genuine closeness has become more exacting? It’s not just that we’re too busy for more than a select few confidants. We may be choosier too.
Look at Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” or at junior-high-school cliques, and it’s clear that discriminating among degrees of friendship can be a daunting task. The most tenacious of taxonomists, Aristotle thought pleasure and utility counted for less than the rare commingling of virtuous character as the basis for friendship. Centuries of varying ideals and fears ensued. Are our close ties becoming shallower and more instrumental? How many are too many, and what is enough? Is friendship a matter of spontaneous sincerity, heartfelt reciprocity, mutual understanding, deep loyalty, moral obligation or shared passion — and can it last? In his new book, “Friendship: An Exposé,” Joseph Epstein quotes the German sociologist Georg Simmel already worrying a century ago that we moderns are destined to drift among “differentiated friendships,” missing out on an all-encompassing connection.
Turn from philosophizers to recent empirical surveys, and it’s clear the challenge of categorizing confidants remains as complex as ever. In January, just five months before the General Social Survey appeared, a phone survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project set out to assess the impact of Web involvement on real-world social networks. The study emerged with a notably big figure for what it termed “core ties”: a median number of 15 people with whom respondents said they had discussed important matters, with whom they were in frequent touch or from whom they got substantial help. Here was a three-pronged conception of core ties that roped in friendships across the Aristotelian spectrum, from the useful to the pleasurable and beyond, rather than distilling out just soul mates. Add in the median number of 16 weaker yet still “significant ties” that the Pew survey also counted, and the findings left Americans looking anything but socially isolated.
And now consider the fact that the General Social Survey finds that on average, individuals have only two close confidants. As we puzzle over what the decline means, perhaps we should be reassured that Americans seem clear-eyed about their connections. The study’s low figures may be stark testament that we value a deep bond when we find it and aren’t fooled when we don’t. When one-dimensional, functional relationships are ever more accessible, the desire to be known and to know another from all sides and from inside out may be lodged even deeper — and may thrive closer to home. A century ago, another philosopher surveying a modernizing world, George Santayana, had already concluded that “the tie that in contemporary society most nearly resembles the ancient ideal of friendship is a well-assorted marriage.” The General Social Survey data suggest an inner core that isn’t oppressively clannish but invites rising equality and diversity, narrow though it is. The percentage of people who include a spouse in their circle of closest confidants went from 30 percent in 1985 to almost 40 percent two decades later. And in 2004, 15 percent reported at least one confidant of another race, up from 9 percent in 1985. While to friend has become a frivolous verb, to bond might prove to be one that Americans are taking, if anything, more to heart than ever.

Ann Hulbert, a contributing writer, is the author of “Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children.”