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Friendship is fading


Fri, Jun 30th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

A “friend,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a person whom one knows, likes and trusts; a favored companion; one with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause; a comrade; one who supports, sympathizes with or patronizes.”

I felt compelled to look up the meaning of friend after reading a recent article that appeared on the front pages of several area daily newspapers.

“Friendship is fading – Study finds more Americans feel isolated” the headline read. “Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when they said they had only three close friends, today say they have just two,” the article began. “And the number who say they’ve no one to discuss important matters with has doubled to 1 in 4, according to a nation-wide survey.”

The study found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up 21 years ago. Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but intimacy within families was also down. The findings were reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.

Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in crises, as was quite evident during last summer’s devastation of the Gulf Coast by hurricanes Katrina and Rita; fewer “neighbors” looking after each others’ properties to help deter neighborhood crime; fewer visitors to hospitals and nursing homes; and fewer volunteers for community service projects.

After I finished reading the article, I sat there scratching my head. (Evidently, I must spend a lot of time scratching my head – otherwise I’d have something left on the top, right?) Aren’t we living in the so-called communications age where every household has at least one computer hooked up to the Internet and nearly every person over the age of 10 has a cell phone? If this is the communications age, why aren’t we communicating?

Years ago, you didn’t want to spend more than 10 or 15 minutes on a long distance phone call or it would cost you an arm and a leg. Cell phone packages now offer 1,000 minutes per month and buddy specials that are free calls. And if 1,000 minutes per month isn’t enough, other packages offer unlimited minutes. So now we can talk on the phone all day without breaking the bank.

And with the Internet, one can crank out a letter and send it as a mass mailing to as many friends as you want. That’s a far cry from the “good old days” when a person penned one letter at a time, had to get an envelope, stamp and drop it off at the post office.

The communications age has made communicating so much more affordable and user friendly. So why aren’t we communicating? Why don’t we have the friendships we used to have?

One explanation for friendship’s decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who when homemakers, tended to have strong community networks. Americans are commuting much longer distances. Forty years ago, a 40-mile commute was unheard of. Now, it’s commonplace.

TV viewing and computer use are also up. Instead of sitting out on the front porch at night after supper like Andy, Barney, and Aunt Bea did in Mayberry, we sit inside with our noses glued to a 55-inch plasma or computer screen.

The architectural design of our homes reflects this change in our society. You don’t see new homes built with large, front porches. The main focal point of just about every new home I’ve looked at in the past 20 years is the garage...or should I say garages – a double-wide with a single-stall garage right next to it. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new house going up with a big front porch. Many new homes do include screen porches and/or decks. But they are almost always tucked away in the back of the house for more privacy.

And years ago, when a new family moved into the neighborhood, the homeowners in the area would organize a block party so that the new family could get acquainted with their new neighbors. When’s the last time you’ve heard of a house-warming party in your neighborhood?

Maybe the biggest reason why most Americans don’t have as many friends as they used to is because we just aren’t friendly anymore. Do we walk down the street, smile and say hello to people we meet, even if he or she might be a total stranger? Do we hold doors open for strangers when entering a place of business? Do we stop and offer help to someone when a car is pulled off on the shoulder of a road with the flashers on? Or do we just figure they have a cell phone and help is on the way?

If the current trend continues, 20 years from now most of us will only have one close friend and what about 20 years after that?

Charlie Warner of Canton, is the editor of the Houston County News in LaCrescent. His commentary will appear from time to time in the Journal.

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