Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

American ties (part 1)

By Claude Fischer

cloth friendship bracelets

In July, 2006, the New York Times ran a  scary story headlined, “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier.” It was one of many news accounts that summer that reported on a dramatic finding from a study newly published in a major sociology journal. The authors had discovered that about 25 percent of Americans interviewed in a 2004 nationally representative survey had answered “no one” when asked with whom they had “discussed important matters” in the previous six months – and that percentage was way up from the 8 percent who had answered “no one” in a similar survey conducted in 1985.

cloth friendship bracelets
Ra'ike via Creative Commons

In two decades, commentators decried, the nation had suffered a plague of isolation.The notion that Americans were becoming isolates confirmed many people’s darkest suspicion and soon became the conventional wisdom; the study was cited everywhere. However…..

I was skeptical of the 2004 survey results and explained, in detail, why I thought they were in error – three years later in the same journal. More important, a canvass of many surveys on Americans’ social ties reveals no other data showing growing isolation. Instead, surveys generally show that relatively few Americans report being isolated and that the percentage who do has changed little in decades. Modern Americans seem not particularly isolated and seem not to have gotten more so.

(Disclosure: This post is part of an occasional series drawing from a new book of mine, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970. Further details can be found there. In an earlier blog post, I discussed the decline of formal dining.)

Friends, you don’t say

One problem with the New York Times‘s and other reports on the original study (by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears) is how journalists interpreted interviewees’ answers of “no one” to the question, “Who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” Most took those answers to mean that these respondent had no friends. What these respondents had really said (assuming that they were being frank and not just evading the question) is that they had not discussed such matters with any friends, or spouses, or relatives, or ministers, or anyone. Another problem with the common interpretations is that some people say “no one” to this question not because they are friendless, but because they feel that they have have no “big issues” to discuss. A third problem is that some people (men, mainly) can answer “no one” and yet still have friends because for them friends are the people they do things with, not the people they bare their souls to.

graph of Gallup interviewees who said they had 0 to 2 friends.
Source: Gallup Poll, analyzed in Still Connected by Claude Fischer

So, what can we say about what has happened to Americans’ friendships? And then what can we say about what has happened to Americans’ stock of confidants, the people they turn to for heavy discussions?

Several surveys over the last few decades have asked the same questions in different years to get respondents to estimate how many “friends” or “close friends” they have. Very few Americans say they have no friends, few say they have only one or two friends, and little has changed in such reports for decades. For example: Between 1976 and 2003, the Gallup Poll occasionally asked its national sample, “Not counting your relatives, about how many close friends would you say you have?” The percentage of respondents who said “none,” was never higher than 3. (Similarly, other surveys almost never get a percentage of “no friends” above low single digits.)

As to the trends, this figure shows the percentage of Gallup interviewees who said they had no, only one, or only two friends. There is no trend. And that is also pretty much the story from other surveys.

Some surveys asked respondents how often they communicated with their friends (the questions sometimes refer to “friends or relatives”). They found little overall change in contact in recent decades. Maybe Americans these days see their friends in person a bit less often than Americans did before – although the data here are not clear. What is clear is that friends speak to one another by telephone and communicate through internet more often than Americans used to. Total contact is the same as or greater than before.

Confidants, you say

What proportion of Americans admit to interviewers that they have no one they can take their worries to? The oft-cited study found that, in 2004, about one-fourth did. But many other surveys have asked roughly similar questions and, overwhelmingly, they found that well under 10 percent of respondents report having no confidants. And these surveys have detected little change in access to confidants, if any.

Take, for example, two large-scale surveys done by the National Institute of Health (the “Comorbidity” studies), one around 1991 and the other around 2002. Among the questions the surveys asked was: “How much can you open up to your friends if you have need to talk about your worries, a lot, some, a little, or not at all?” Circa 1991, 47% of the respondents said “a lot”; circa 2002, 49% said “a lot.” No change.

flag necktie
Sage Ross, Creative Commons

Another example: In 1986 and again in 2002, the General Social Survey asked a national sample, “Now suppose you feel just a bit down or depressed, and you wanted to talk about it. (a) Who would you turn to first for help? (b) Who would you turn to second?” The interviewers provided a long list of possible answers, including spouse, different sorts of relatives, friends, professional counselors such as doctors and ministers, and no one. (Spouses were, of course, usually the first to be picked.) In 1986, 82% of the married respondents named personal ties (rather than professional connections or no one at all) as both a first and a second choice; in 2002, 87% of the married picked two personal relationships. Among unmarried respondents, 77% in 1986 and 82% in 2002 named personal ties both first and second. Thus: no trend or a slight positive trend. By the way, in both 1986 and 2002, fewer than 4 percent either said they had no one to talk to or dodged the question.

How come?

Americans have come to expect reports of declining social ties, declining intimacy, declining community – and actually have heard such reports since about 1650 or so. Over the long haul, Americans have probably added ties and intimacy. (Chapter 4 of Made in America addresses this topic.) But we don’t have “hard numbers” on the historical trend except for the most recent decades. And they show minimal change.

How come? Why haven’t the social changes in the last few decades undermined social ties? Some of the changes may have made maintaining social bonds harder – more difficult economic times for most Americans, more two-job couples and long commutes, busier children, and such. Other changes may have made maintaining  bonds easier – cheaper and faster travel and communications, for example. Perhaps most important is that Americans place a high value on friendship – not as much as on family, but still a lot – which means that they often make it their business to keep those friends and they sacrifice other things (money, leisure, sleep) to stay close, to stay tied.


Anecdotal afterword

In an end-of-the-year lifestyle story, USA Today reported that “2010 was the Year We Stopped Talking to One Another. From texting at dinner to posting on Facebook from work or checking e-mail while on a date, the connectivity revolution is creating a lot of divided attention, not to mention social angst. Many analysts say it’s time to step back and reassess.” The spark for this report, I was told (I am one of the “analysts” quoted) was a tv episode in which family members at the dinner table were all engaged electronically elsewhere. If we’re going to declare Great Lifestyle Revolutions (in caps) by anecdote, I’d like to offer my own real-life anecdote.

If you go into any hip, young-adult, pricey eating place in, say, Manhattan, west L.A., or San Francisco, you will see throngs of tech-savvy people all equipped with smartphones which they regularly check. But what is much more and immediately striking is how damn LOUD the place is – the din, the babble, the shouting of… what? … people talking to one another. These are people who probably arranged their meal date by instant message or email and who have their devices sitting next to their plates. And yet they are doing all this face-to-face yakking – so much of it that one sometimes wishes they would instead text each other so one could enjoy a nice meal in peace.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.