Getting to Know Your Neighbors
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
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 played
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 talked
about it the next day. Today, it's almost as if we each
have our own network, from dramas to cooking channels, to
movies 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
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
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