Count up your friends, if you have any
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Anyone seen my friends?
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You may have seen the shocking news in Saturday's newspaper that you have fewer friends than you once did. Your list of confidants is dwindling. There's no one with whom to discuss your most intimate matters. (i.e. "Do you think I should see a doctor for this rash on my thigh? Hey, you, at the bus stop, take a look at this, would you? Where ya going? Hey, come back, what'd I say?")
Americans typically had a group of three close confidants in 1985, but that dropped to two by 2004, according to sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona, who scrutinized responses from American adults in the General Social Survey. So what happened to the third friend? It could be you forgot to repay that $20 you borrowed, and your over-the-top flirting with his or her spouse didn't help either.
The professors' research paper described modern Americans' social contacts as a "densely connected, close, homogenous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family." It seems as though we most enjoy being with other people who look, speak and live just like ourselves, similarly to royal families and Appalachian hillbillies of old. That's right, we're just a step away from inbreeding, which might be fine for those descended from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, but as for the rest of us -- yeccch.
Sign me up -- not!
Harvard University professor and author Robert Putnam brought concerns about our social habits up in his 2000 book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." Apparently unable to find anyone willing to go to the lanes with him in Cambridge on a Saturday night -- and plenty miffed about it -- Putnam put all his effort into showing how little time we were all willing to give any longer to civic efforts, fraternal groups, parent-teacher organizations and the like. Membership in 32 national volunteer organizations he studied peaked in the 1950s and '60s.
In a recent appearance at Notre Dame University, Putnam noted that people don't even go on picnics or attend dinner parties the way they used to, let alone attend public meetings or sign petitions. Putnam said the disconnectedness among the U.S. population today is comparable to a century ago, when the forces of industrial revolution and immigration presented socialization challenges.
Americans bound themselves together then through new groups like the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club and NAACP. Some new methods of connecting are needed today, Putnam says, and he doesn't cite speed-dating as a solution.
Get out, be popular
Keith Ferrazzi, who grew up in Unity, Westmoreland County, and became a top national marketing consultant, is full of suggestions for people to connect with the other humans they encounter. You'll never catch him alone in a corner table at McDonald's at lunchtime, because his popular 2005 book is called: "Never Eat Alone and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time."
Ferrazzi, whose bi-coastal company is called Ferrazzi Greenlight, believes rugged individualism is out, in the business world and otherwise. He advocates a wide network of genuine relationships as the springboard for achieving one's goals. Ferrazzi calls it "pinging" -- the fine art of networking for a purpose, making useful telephone calls, writing effective thank-you notes, inviting new contacts to lunch, hosting social gatherings.
"Never, ever disappear," is Ferrazzi's mantra. "Keep your social and conference and event calendar full. You must work hard to remain visible and active with your ever-growing network of friends and contacts."
Plus, forget everything you ever heard about skipping personal, potentially unpleasant or controversial topics when chatting with new people. Ferrazzi says abiding by that old rule will just make you a bore. He suggests you'll make a more lasting impression if you speak up and offer a glimpse of true personality. (So if you're at a dinner party, and the hostess offers broccoli, don't be shy to tell her you hate it. She'll remember you.)
Don't tell Kevin Bacon this
Even if you're an anti-Ferrazzi, a shut-in who last left the house to the tune of an ice cream truck jingling when you were 10, you may be like-it-or-not linked to everyone else in society. The "six degrees of separation" concept was supposedly proven by psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1967. He traced the cross-country travel of mailings between acquaintances, as they sought to fulfill the goal of getting a delivery from one pre-selected stranger to another.
Milgram's findings were initially hailed as showing it took no more than six intermediaries to get the mailed folders to their target. But upon further review, as we like to say in the NFL and The Morning File, people looking into Milgram's work found most of the mail never even reached the final destination; that sly dog of a researcher simply focused on the attempts that were successful.
Psychologist Judith Kleinfeld says, "In the intervening decades, Milgram's findings have slipped away from their scientific moorings and sailed into the world of imagination. ... The idea of six degrees of separation may, in fact, be plain wrong -- the academic equivalent of an urban myth." But she wasn't ruling out the possibility he was correct. Feel free to take a stand on it either way next time you dine with Keith Ferrazzi, and he'll remember you for it.
First Published June 29, 2006 12:00 am