How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult
In the Atlantic, Julie Beck has a great new piece on "How Friendships Change in Adulthood." It will ring true for Vox readers of, uh, a certain age. Like my age, for instance. Old, is what I'm saying.
I do think, however, that Beck left out an interesting piece of the puzzle. Our ability to form and maintain friendships is shaped in crucial ways by the physical spaces in which we live. "Land use," as it's rather aridly known, shapes behavior and sociality. And in America we have settled on patterns of land use that might as well have been designed to prevent spontaneous encounters, the kind out of which rich social ties are built.
We get by with a little less help from our friends
It's a familiar tale that Beck tells: Early in life, friendships are central to our development and sense of self. This is true right up through to those early post-collegiate years, when everyone is starting out in their professional lives.
And then people get married. They have kids. Their parents get older and need more care. They settle into careers. All those obligations — spouses, kids, family, work — are things we have to do. Friendships are things we choose to do. And that means, when time contracts and things get busier, friendships get bumped.
So as we get older, time with friends tapers off. "[In a study we did,] we asked people to tell us the story of the last person they became friends with, how they transitioned from acquaintance to friend," researcher Emily Langan told Beck. "It was interesting that people kind of struggled":
In a set of interviews he did in 1994 with middle-aged Americans about their friendships, [researcher William] Rawlins [of Ohio University] wrote that, "an almost tangible irony permeated these adults' discussions of close or ‘real’ friendship." They defined friendship as "being there" for each other, but reported that they rarely had time to spend with their most valued friends, whether because of circumstances, or through the age-old problem of good intentions and bad follow-through: "Friends who lived within striking distance of each other found that… scheduling opportunities to spend or share some time together was essential," Rawlins writes. "Several mentioned, however, that these occasions often were talked about more than they were accomplished."
This is a sad story. People almost universally report that friendships are important to their happiness and well-being. They don't want to lose touch with friends and stop making new ones. They lament it constantly. (I can testify to all of this firsthand.)
But as the habits of family and work settle in, friendships become an effort, and as every tired working parent knows, optional effort tends to get triaged.
Our missing tribes
There's a temptation to say that this is inevitable, just the way things are. People grow up, they don't hang out with friends as much anymore, it's kind of sad, but that's just how it is.
But it's worth remembering that it is not inevitable. In fact it's quite new! For the vast majority of Homo sapiens' history, we lived in small, nomadic bands. The tribe, not the nuclear family, was the primary unit. We lived among others of various ages, to which we were tied by generations of kinship and alliance, throughout our lives. Those are the circumstances in which our biological and neural equipment evolved.
It's only been comparatively recently (about 10,000 years ago) that we developed agriculture and started living in semi-permanent communities, more recently still that were thrown into cities, crammed up against people we barely know, and more recently still that we bounced out of cities and into suburbs.
So everything about how we live now is "unnatural," at least in terms of our biology. Of course, that doesn't mean it's bad — it's generally a bad idea to draw normative conclusions from evolutionary history — but it should remind us that socially constructed living patterns have shallower roots than we might think from our parochial perspective.
Point being, each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it — there's nothing fated or inevitable about it.
Why should it require explicit scheduling to see a friend who lives "within striking distance"? Why shouldn't proximity do some of the work? That answer, for many Americans, is that anywhere beyond a few blocks away might as well be miles; it all requires a car. We do not encounter one another in cars. We grind along together anonymously, often in misery.
The loss of spontaneous encounters
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. 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.
The researchers believed that physical space was the key to friendship formation; that "friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home or walking about the neighborhood." In their view, it wasn’t so much that people with similar attitudes became friends, but rather that people who passed each other during the day tended to become friends and later adopted similar attitudes.
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
(If you know of the study I'm talking about, please, luvagod, send it to me.)
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?
Where would it happen? What public spaces are there in which you mix and mingle freely with people on a regular basis? The mall? Walmart? How about noncommercial spaces? Can you think of one?