human behavior

Quote of the day: Neighbors

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Habits & Manners, Quote of the Day by humanb on June 12, 2010

My neighborhood train station, Sydney

“Aside from the people who live in my building, I know the name of only one person who lives on my block.” – Charles Blow in Friends, Neighbors and Facebook.

In the NYT, Blow writes about the effect of social networking on traditional friendships and communities. He admits:

“I have thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ on the social-networking sites in which I vigorously participate. (In real life, I maintain a circle of friends so small that I could barely arrange a circle.) Something is wrong with this picture.”

Blow echoes my own sentiments but to a lesser extent. (He’s not planning on unplugging himself anytime soon.) I think the fact that there was such a disconnect between my number of friends in life and my number of ‘friends’ online disturbed me most. There was a stink of falsity about my Facebook friends list.

My real discontent though, lies with the state of neighbors.

Blow is right, and the data bears him out: Americans (and I would argue Australians too) are becoming much less neighborly. Blow downplays the role of urban life and elevates the role of social networking as a cause. I think that’s a stretch. I’m still convinced that urban life is the culprit, with the constant and ever-more-rapid migration of people and families across countries, counties, cities, and communities. It used to be that the people of a given neighborhood had a decent amount in common. Common threads connect us.

There’s also the physical reality of urban life: the high-rise. It’s ironic that as humans live ever closer together physically, they become ever more desperate for privacy and less inclined towards socialization. It startles and saddens me how awkward an apartment elevator ride has become when neighbors get ‘stuck’ riding the same car to their adjacent apartments. We look away, look down, nod perfunctorily, or proffer a brief and insincere smile while waiting impatiently for our escape.

What happened to that neighbor from whom you could borrow a cup of sugar?

I tried to borrow some butter from a neighbor last year. I think she thought I was crazy. (Yeah I know, it wouldn’t be borrowing, as I wasn’t planning on giving it back.)

The political pressure is on to welcome globalization and celebrate the growing ethnic and cultural diversity of our communities.  To wish for the good ol’ days’ of cultural homogeneity is considered racist and xenophobic, if not malicious. I’ve travelled a good bit, spent most of my life in ethnically diverse big cities, and currently live abroad where I have little in common with any of my city’s inhabitants, so I clearly appreciate cultural diversity. It’s interesting and educational. It’s expansive.

But it’s lonely too.

I’m not connecting. There’s no commonality, so there’s no community. That commonality needn’t be race, but it needs to be more than residence.

The problem with Facebook is that while it may enable us to find commonality with others – it’s a virtual community with absolutely no neighbors, so there’s zero possibility of being able to borrow a cup of sugar.

I think the solution must be for everyone to stop, stay put, plant roots, and let the sun rise and set several thousand times. Sooner or later, a community might grow.

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