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Alone Together

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Conversely, married people—women especially—have smaller friendship-based social networks than they did as single people, according to Claude Fischer. In a recent phone conversation with the sociologist, I mentioned a related curiosity I came across in a paper about the elderly and social isolation in New York City: The neighborhoods where people were at the greatest risk, it seemed, were in neighborhoods where people seemed very married—family neighborhoods, in fact, like Borough Park and Ridgewood. “That’s not strange at all,” he says. “They’re the prime category of people to be isolated.” He explains that these people “aged in place,” as sociologists like to say, staying in the homes where they raised their own families. Then their spouses died, and so did their cohort (or it moved to a retirement community), and they’re suddenly surrounded by strange families, often of different classes or ethnic backgrounds, with whom they’re likely to have far less in common. “Unless they have children living nearby,” he says, “they’re likely to be quite isolated.”

I’m familiar with a younger version of this. When the New Yorkers I know feel lonely—single women especially—it’s a product, too, of feeling asynchronous with their cohort. I myself felt this way until fairly recently. James Moody, a network guru at Duke University, notes that there’s a time in the lives of young professionals when they retreat deep into their silos, trying to make partner, get tenure, write their books, complete their residencies, or whatever it is that they’re hoping to do. If they’re lucky, they’re married, which helps sustain them through the work isolation. Then the next stage comes when they’re working hard in their newly minted careers (as partners, tenured professors, authors, doctors, or whatever it is they’re doing). And again, they’re fairly cut off socially, but they’re buoyed, one hopes, by the presence of a family at home. But if someone is out of step with this pattern—not partnered off, say, while still working really hard—New York can be a challenging place.

But the fact remains that a city, New York especially, might be the best place to ride out that period of lonely toil. Because New York, like the Internet, also offers a rich network of acquaintances, or what sociologists like to call “weak ties.”

There are sociologists who will argue that weak ties are the bane of modern life. We are drowning in a sea of them, they’ll say—networking with colleagues rather than socializing with friends, corresponding online with lots of people we know only moderately well rather than catching up with our nearest and dearest on the phone. Bowling Alone is, to some extent, one long elegy for the strong ties we’ve lost, whether they’re the bowling leagues of Pittsburgh or the Hadassahs of New Jersey.

And there’s no doubt that weak ties can distract and enervate us. How many families sit down at dinner together with the best of intentions, only to find themselves drawn into their own individual worlds—texting on their BlackBerrys, yakking on their cells? (The cover art for Elsewhere, U.S.A., the fine upcoming book by NYU sociologist Dalton Conley, says it all: a family sitting at the dining-room table, each member staring at his or her own laptop.)

But having lots of weak ties is also wonderful for many things—including finding stronger ties. As Mark Granovetter wrote in his seminal 1973 essay, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” they’re much better at helping us find jobs because they offer us diversity and breadth. The same goes for love. Think about it: If you’re single, you already know all your friends’ single friends. It’s your acquaintances’ single friends you don’t know.

Viewed in this light, networking with acquaintances, of whom we all have many in New York, is hardly a shallow enterprise or waste of time. It’s through these people that we find husbands, wives, life partners, better jobs. Why should we begrudge that any more than we’d begrudge going on Nerve? Or Monster.com?

Weak ties offer other advantages in cities. They’re crucial to collective political action—your closest friends aren’t enough to start a movement—and they’re better than strong ties, believe it or not, for protecting neighborhoods, for the same reason: Banding together with those you know well isn’t enough to keep a whole community safe. Weak ties are essential to the creative economy, as Richard Florida pointed out in The Rise of the Creative Class, because diversity breeds innovation (and more diversity).

There is even evidence that weak ties simply make us feel better. According to Loneliness, the advice your mother gives you when you’re depressed—Get out of the damn house, would you?—turns out to be right. For most people, being in the simple presence of a friendly person helps us reregulate our behavior if we’re feeling depressed in our isolation. We are naturally wired not just to connect with them but to imitate them—which might be a good idea, if our impulses at that moment are self-destructive. Cacioppo and Patrick cite a range of studies showing that students in classes with the best rapport imitate each other’s body language; same goes for athletes on winning teams. The presence of other human beings puts a natural limit on how freakily we can behave. And where better to find them than in cities, where we have more ties? (Think about the sociopathic kids who shot other kids in Red Lake, Minnesota; at Northern Illinois University; at Virginia Tech—what do they have in common? They were living in isolated places.) Robert Sampson, paraphrasing Durkheim, puts it this way: “The tie itself provides health benefits. That’s where I started with my work on crime.”


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