Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The End of Social Life?

I am beginning to think that the social life of the United States, and perhaps the whole world, is coming to an end. No matter where I go I see folks on their phones, their heads down, their whole attention on the screen. Somehow people don’t interact personally with each other.

I have lately been in restaurants where it’s so loud that the only way to have a conversation with the people I’m with is by texting. I can’t figure out why restaurants have come to the conclusion that loud is good, louder is better, and loudest is best. What ever the reason, it hastens the demise of social interaction because no one will be able to hear in the future.

My wife Ann and I entertain on a regular basis. We are not grand and we don’t have formal dinner parties, and we no longer have 35 people for Thanksgiving, but we do follow basic social conventions. We use cloth napkins, we ban cell phones from the table, and we prohibit shirtlessness and hats - even when we are by ourselves. 

We provide the place and, we hope, good food, and we work to invite interesting people. From this great conversation flows. We gossip occasionally, and being of a certain age, we have the occasional “organ recital.” But we generally try to focus on the passions in our guests’ lives. Frequently we find those passions match our own or spark new avenues of exploration.

But social conventions continue to break down, and there are two big indications of this. First is failing to respond to invitations at all, and second is lack of reciprocation. 

Not responding is annoying at best and costly at worst. See my post R.S.V.P., dammit!

Reciprocation is a really important idea. I realize that many people feel they don’t have the resources to reciprocate. But saying, Let’s go out for a cup of coffee, my treat or Stop by for a cup of tea would make me happy and show a continuing interest. 

Some of our best entertaining is with folks who have kids. Kids (including this ancient one) love breakfast for dinner, and making waffles and sausage in the evening is pretty easy. We love to chat with the kids, and if there’s a minor mess, no one notices or cares too much. If they’re really young, we put a sheet on the floor under their chairs. Having set up a very casual experience, we find that these families invite us back.

It’s the middle-aged folks who don’t reciprocate. They may feel they’re not elegant enough or their houses are in disrepair. But our somewhat tired kitchen was built in place when our house was built in 1954, and we haven’t remodeled it yet. It functions - and it’s clean. That’s all that counts. The only things we have done is move the refrigerator so we can have a dishwasher - temporary counter and all - and get a range hood with lights. 

Some people may feel they live in squalor or their houses are too small. I frankly don’t buy that. We downsized from eleven rooms to four, and turned the second bedroom into a dining room.  We’re far more content and have fewer things owning us. Sometimes it feels a little cramped. Unless we have someone coming over, a quarter of (okay, half) the dining room table acts like any other flat surface in our lives and collects books, magazines, notebooks filled with important stuff, you get the idea. But we continue to entertain.

We give people a couple chances, but if they never ask us back, we don’t invite them again, either.
The point isn’t the place or even the food. It’s the social experience, the companionship, the discussions, the exciting exchange of ideas. 

We can become a better society by having dinner together occasionally. But we have to put away the cell phones, let people know whether or not we’re coming, and then invite them back. Three basic tenets sound a little simple minded, but they boil down to common courtesy and treating others they way you want to be treated.

As always, I welcome your comments below.


Jammin' Kauai Man said...

If you two come to Kauai, you can have dinner with me!

Bill Moser said...

What a great invitation. Thanks! said...

I am decades overdue reciprocating the kindness shown me by you and your wife. You picked me up, fed me and transported me to a bus station when I got stranded in Chicago in college. I have never forgotten that kindness.

You were certainly one of my favorite and most interesting teachers in high school. If you find yourself in Atlanta, I would love the opportunity to reciprocate and catch up.

Christine Robertson
Class of 1981