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Getting to Know Your Neighbors

By Philip Humbert

This week, I read Charles Murray's new book, "Coming Apart." It's one of the "hot" books right now, and I've seen him interviewed on numerous talk shows, and heard others debating his thesis, so I figured I should read it for myself. I'm glad I did. It troubled me, and his arguments will hopefully propel you and me to make some positive changes.

I found the book well written and fascinating, but I admit that it's not for everyone. It's full of statistics and graphs, the kind of demographic analysis that puts folks to sleep. But, for me, the saving grace is that he also included lots of stories and anecdotes to illustrate his arguments, and perhaps I'm just enough of a research geek to find the data analysis tolerable.

Here's the thing. Americans are increasingly isolated from our neighbors. And that's not a good thing.

He analyzes data from 1960 to 2010, and the evidence is awful! Both his data and his stories, which rang true to my memories of growing up in the Midwest, illustrate that in 1960, everyone knew everyone around them. The bank president attended the same church as the janitor and the bank tellers. Their kids all attended the same schools and plaid together after school.

In the 60's, there were only three television networks and it was normal for half of the entire country to watch "I Love Lucy" on the same night. And the whole country talkedabout it the next day. Today, it's almost as if we eachhave our own network, from dramas to cooking channels, tomovies and sports. In 2010, the most popular show in America never reached more than 9% of the country!

As a nation, we no longer have much in common. We commute further to work, and no longer belong to unions. Church attendance is way down, and civic organizations have dwindled. Even voting percentages have decreased. We are each going our separate way, leading our hectic lives in relative isolation from our neighbors.

Much of this was captured ten years ago in Robert Putnam's book, "Bowling Alone," and the trends have not changed.

For me, this suggests two major and very different problems.

The first is that since we tend not to know our neighbors very well, we are losing a sense of community. We've begun to identify with members of our social or demographic "set" —people in our profession, people with similar incomes, or similar political views. And everyone else is a stranger, or even a competitor. Our list of "close friends" has shrunk, and that has unfortunate implications in terms of isolation and eventually, alienation.

The second problem is that, from a practical perspective, we don't really know who we're doing business with. We do business online. We do business globally, but we don't know our customers and it's harder to form long-term, mutually beneficial bonds. We may sell more in the short-term, but it's harder to form the partnerships that generate the big profits over time.

My recommendations are that you (1) read the book if I've spurred your curiosity, and (2) make a point to greet your neighbors this week. Send a card to an old friend, call a past customer, re-connect with that elderly person across the street.

One silly little thing I did this week was to hang out by the mailboxes. We have those modular boxes at the end of our street, so when Tucker and I got the mail one day, I just stood there and got "caught up" reading a magazine. In an hour I managed to greet a dozen neighbors I hadn't talked with in months! It was fun, and I think it may have been important.

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