The Cardus Daily

Becoming Socially Incompetent

Milton Friesen  |  August 31, 2012  |  Cities, Culture, Health, Networking

Lonely in the City

It is difficult to read the new Vancouver Foundation Report Connections and Engagement and not feel deeply moved by what it represents. After polling 275 charitable organizations and 100 community leaders, they identified loneliness as the most significant and worrisome social trend they are encountering. This was followed up by a market survey of 3,841 people in metro Vancouver. Here are the parts that I found most striking:

  • Vancouver is the most connected city in Canada in terms of social media, but is also among the most lonely cities in the country
  • People aged 25-34 are the most lonely demographic
  • High-rise apartments are the most lonely locations
  • Most people don’t know their neighbours well enough to say hello or to offer even minor assistance to them
  • People are about as connected to their neighbours after three years as they were when they first moved in (in most cases, very little)
  • Most people don’t get involved in civic life because they don’t think they have anything to offer

This isn’t just about Vancouver. I suspect we would find similar trending across the country, at least in a general sense. Just because we can communicate (digitally and otherwise) doesn’t mean that we do. Even the connected and hip segment, with phones always active and screens constantly aglow, doesn’t escape loneliness—in fact, they lead the pack. Technology does not replace human interaction. It may, in cases where we adopt it uncritically, undermine a range of things that happen when we actually spend time together.

I need not rant on the point. It’s made every day in nearly every way. It is possible we are growing technologically savvy and social incompetent.

There is a great deal written about higher density cities as the way to get better at resource use and drive innovation. So far, it looks like the social cost of the high-rise tower is rather high (see developers’ promotional literature selling high rise condos in Toronto and elsewhere for farcical entertainment). Packing people high and tight does’t make them into a human community. We’ve got to get much, much better at seeing the social landscape, developing better spatial ideas for interaction, and learning more about how failing to attend to this can drive us apart.

Feeling like you have nothing to offer is a whole other kind of problem, in my mind. It seems that we’ve lost our neighbourly fibre. We’re civic flakes who wring our hands about doing anything that matters. Other people, other systems, other technologies will make up the gaps; we don’t matter. This is an inner-mind recording that we surely must change. The cruel cycle is that loneliness drives more loneliness. Real friends, real community, real neighbourliness can interrupt this cycle. Kudos to the Vancouver Foundation for listening, for beginning to see it, and for trying to jam a wrench in the grinding wheels of social isolation.

I think that we all need to learn more about becoming network weavers, capable of connecting people, interests, activities, missions, and beliefs. Network weaving is about that very vital and invisible connectedness that exists between us. We are gloriously independent, materially wealthy, and tragically alone. Here are a few things that can foster this re-weaving, in no particular order: hospitality (invite people over); common recreation (set up a neighbourhood baseball game); worship (connect to your tradition in an actual location); time in public places (parks, squares, festivals, concerts); embracing divergence (risk talking to someone different than you are in terms of ideas, ethnicity, economics, hobbies); if you are young, finding a senior to talk with or if you are a senior, finding someone younger to talk to or help out . . . Whatever it takes, get out and try connecting some social wires. The tragedy of loneliness can begin to be undone by every single one of us doing some very small things to step gently around the debilitation of keeping ourselves at the centre of the universe.



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