Friday, June 23, 2006

Americans Don't Want To Be Friends With Anybody

Americans have a third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago, and the number of people who have none has more than doubled -- another sign we may be living lonelier, more isolated lives than in the past, a survey being released today will say.

The survey found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in 1985.

Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but intimacy within families was down, too. The findings are reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.

"You usually don't see that kind of big social change in a couple of decades," said study coauthor Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

This isn't just an academic exercise: Close relationships serve as a safety net, she said. "Whether it's picking up a child in day care or finding someone to help you out of the city in a hurricane, these are people we depend on."

Linda Bickel can relate. The 33-year-old Detroiter is a designer for an advertising agency downtown. Her closest confidants are a sister and sister-in-law.

"For me, it's because I always had a close family," Bickel said. "Even when I was married -- I was married for 10 years -- we would do stuff with his family or our close friends. We didn't have a big circle."

One explanation for friendship's decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women who, when homemakers, tended to have strong community networks. In addition, commutes are longer, and TV viewing and computer use are up.

As connections to neighbors and social clubs decline, Smith-Lovin said, "From a social point of view it means you've got more people isolated in a small network of people who are just like them."

Carissa Gaden, a St. Clair Shores psychologist, said Thursday that more harried lifestyles contribute to the lack of close relationships.

"Most people are so busy nowadays that maybe they don't have the time to nurture relationships. The person you run into at your daughter's soccer game may not be the person that you want to say 'Hey, I'm really concerned about this ...' to."

But Gaden said while the Duke study shows people have fewer close friends, that doesn't mean people don't want them.

"The clients I work with talk a lot about relationships," she said. "People definitely want those close relationships with other people."

A person's relationships or lack of them -- can say a lot about the person.

"When I'm meeting someone, I want to know about their relationships, because it tells me about how emotionally healthy they are," Gaden said.

The research team's findings are based on questions that they added to one of the nation's classic attitude polls, the General Social Survey, which the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center has conducted every two years since 1972.

In the face-to-face survey, 1,467 people -- a nationally representative sample -- were asked to count and describe all the people with whom they'd discussed matters important to them in the previous six months.

The question asked in 2004 was the same as that asked in 1985, although the term "discussed" may have led some recent respondents to omit friendships sustained by e-mail, Smith-Lovin admitted.

"But if you need someone to pick up your kid from the day care center because you're stuck at work, you can't e-mail someone in New York," she said.

Added Detroiter Bickel: those e-mail relationships aren't as intimate.

"The way we communicate is different," said Bickel, who e-mails college friends. "E-mail is so easy to keep a lot of people in the loop in a more casual way. Whereas if they used to have to write letters to keep in touch with people, it was more personal."

Compiled from Knight Ridder Newspapers and USA Today.