Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lonely Americans -- a high-tech problem? -- April 26, 2012 column


Traveling solo as a newspaper reporter many years ago, I stopped at a café in Central City, Neb., on a Saturday night.

“We’ve had more lonely women eating here tonight,” the hostess announced in a flat, booming voice. I looked around, and the room was filled with couples.

“I’ll put you in the corner,” she said loudly. She felt sorry for me, but I was having the trip of my life, seeing America in a little red Nissan on the company dime.

It was hopeless in 1984 to try to explain the difference between traveling alone and traveling lonely – and it still is. Americans love independence and prize freedom. We fear and hate loneliness.

The Census Bureau’s report this week that “nonfamily households” – people living alone or with unmarried partners – jumped 16 percent from 2000 to 2010 prompted another wave of lamentation about our lonely society. A closer look revealed that households with people living alone rose just nine-tenth of 1 percent while unmarried partner households soared 41 percent during the decade, suggesting that people do still cuddle up.

We are knee-deep in books and articles about lonely Americans and the rise of social media. The Atlantic magazine stirred a predictable stew of anxiety with its May cover story, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” The answer from author Stephen Marche: not exactly.

“Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media are doing to us,” writes Marche. “We are doing it to ourselves.”

At the same time, “the more connected we become, the lonelier we are,” says Marche.

Nobody ever got poor telling Americans how miserable they are, but are we really that sad? Sociologist Claude S. Fischer at the University of California-Berkeley says reports of American loneliness are greatly exaggerated – and they’re nothing new.

While the headlines might indicate a loneliness epidemic, “we have received such diagnoses for generations,” Fischer wrote in Boston Review online. “The 1950s – the era of large families, crowded churches, and schmoozing suburbanites – brought us …the best-selling `The Lonely Crowd,’ which landed David Reisman on the cover of Time.”

Fischer debunks the idea that people have fewer close friends than ever. The 2004 General Social Survey that found that about 25 percent of Americans had no one with whom they discussed “important matters” – compared with only 8 percent in 1985 – reflected the way the questions were asked, not a dramatic decrease in closeness, he says.

As for blaming technology for declining sociability, the “Middletown” studies were all over that phenomenon in the early 20th century. In their 1929 book about life in Muncie, Ind., Helen and Robert Lynd reported “increasing isolation” and indications of “shallowing friendships.”

“The movie, the automobile and the radio” made men less dependent on friends in times of leisure, and women were more likely to talk to friends on the telephone than to see them at home, the Lynds wrote.

One woman told researchers, “I don’t see my friends at all…It was different with my mother. She and her friends were always in each other’s homes.” Another said, “I do very little visiting – mostly keep in touch with my friends by telephone.”

And those were the good old days. Substitute email or texting, and we could be talking about today. Someday concerns about our devices promoting isolation may seem just as quaint.

Worrying about technology makes us feel like victims of forces beyond our control. That could keep us from seeing – and reaching out – to the lonely people who live on our street, go to our school, or sit in the next cubicle.

The loneliness that should worry us, Fischer writes, is “the loneliness of the old man whose wife and best friends have died, the shunned schoolchild, the overburdened single mother, and the immigrant working the night shift to send money home.”

The hostess in that Nebraska café may have thought she was helping a lonely stranger by seating her off in a corner. But she was wrong. I wanted to hear her story and the life stories of the couples all around me.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. Marsha, I discovered this site and I can read your work more than once a week. Whoopee! I am struck by the way you address serious and deep issues in a way that is accessible and so smoothly written. The prose looks effortless but I know the work that goes into making it seem that way. Brava!

  2. Thank you Ms. Mercer for giving your readers a balanced perspective on loneliness. I agree with Dan Verner's comments above. You do make complicated issues easy for your readers to understand. Keep on keeping on.