Social science tips for “how to make friends in a new city”

An advice piece in Harvard Business Review about making friends in an unfamiliar place includes several connections to social science research:

Rediscover weak or dormant ties. As we go through life, relationships fade in and out of view. You may have stayed in the same city up until now, but your friends and  former colleagues may have not. As you look toward your new destination, consider the weak ties (acquaintances) and the dormant ties (old friends or colleagues) in your existing social circle. Check your social media channels and alumni databases from school or past employers. You may find that you already know someone who lives in your new city. With this knowledge, you’ll have the opportunity to reach out to them before you move, and set a date to reconnect once you arrive.

Ask existing friends and colleagues for help. This one may sound obvious, but many of us only reach out to our closest friends when we need help making new connections. To get the most out of your current network, make sure you cast a wide net. One of the most powerful questions you can ask is, “Who do you know in ______?” In this case, the blank space is your new city, but it can also be an industry, a company, or anything you’re looking to explore. Before you move, take the time to ask many friends and colleagues if they know anyone worth meeting in your new city. Most people will be able to think of a few names. Even if each person can only think of one, you’ll still walk away with a good list of potential contacts.

Seek out shared activities. Once you land in your new city, it may be tempting to seek out meetups, networking events, and the like. But research shows that events structured around meeting new people often fail. Attendees generally spend time conversing with people they already know, or with people who are similar to themselves. A better option is to participate in a “shared activity,” an event where there is a bigger objective at hand and achieving that objective requires interdependence. You’re much more likely to make new and diverse connections at events that give you a reason to get to know the person next to you. So, how do you find a shared event? They come in all shapes and sizes, from community service to classes to amateur sports leagues. Choose what you’re most comfortable with.

The key emphasis in the advice above is to activate old networks and work your way into new ones. Making use of weak ties, people you may know from the past or acquaintances or friends of friends, could help ease your way into new social circles. It may not necessary be easy to reach out to those weak ties, particularly the extent of a connection was a social media friendship or following, but this would still probably be preferable to cold calling people. To start participating in a new network, the advice suggests finding an activity which allows people to organize themselves by interest. This draws on the homophily often present in social networks: people tend to congregate with people like them. This particular advice about common interests is likely even more true today than in the past; rather than joining civic organizations or relationships based on geography and proximity, people today tend to sort by interests.

Even with these tips, it is likely a disorienting experience for many when they move to a new community. Americans are fairly mobile people and I wonder if the American tendencies toward extroversion and public friendliness are intended to help make these social transitions easier.

Why doesn’t everyone leave Chicago or Illinois?

With the recent news of Chicago’s continuing population decline as well as population loss in some suburbs, some critics have suggested this all makes sense with the problems facing Chicago and the state of Illinois. The argument goes like this: when social, economic, and political conditions are bad, people vote with their feet and leave. Look at all the people moving to Texas and the Sun Belt!

However, there are multiple reasons people stay in Chicago and Illinois. Among them:

  1. It is costly financially to move. It takes time and money to move to a new location. Having a good job on the other hand is needed.
  2. It is costly socially to move. Finding new friends and social connections can be difficult, particularly in today’s society where Americans tend to stick to themselves.
  3. They have a good job in Illinois or Chicago. There are still plenty of good jobs here; Chicago is the #7 global city after all and there are lots of headquarters, major offices, and research facilities alongside large service and retail sectors.
  4. They have families or ties to the area. The Chicago region is the third biggest in the country – over 9 million residents – and there are lots of residents with long histories and/or many connections.
  5. Both places have a lot of amenities. One of the busiest airports in the world? Impressive skyline? Access to Lake Michigan? Good farmland? Located in the center geographically and socially in the United States? Land of Lincoln?

All that said, for the vast majority of Chicago and Illinois resident, there are not enough negatives outweighing the positives of staying. (This is not the same as saying current residents are happy or wouldn’t prefer to live somewhere else.) Compared to other American locations which are growing more quickly, it doesn’t look good but Chicago and Illinois also aren’t emptying out like American major cities did in the postwar era or some rural areas.

Examining neighborhood diversity and cohesion in England

A study published in European Sociology Review examines the effect of ethnic diversity on community cohesion:

A 17 year study of over 10,000 people found Britons felt less attached to their neighbourhood when communities become more multi-cultural.

Yet those who moved out to areas where they were surrounded by their own kind were happier, the Manchester University research found.

But the same was not true for Britons moving into already mixed places as relocating there had no harmful effect on how people viewed their surroundings or levels of happiness.

More explanation from the article abstract:

This article provides strong evidence that the effect of community diversity is likely causal, but that prior preferences for/against out-group neighbours may condition diversity’s impact. It also demonstrates that multiple causal processes are in operation at the individual-level, occurring among both stayers and movers, which collectively contribute to the emergence of average cross-sectional differences in attitudes between communities.

It sounds like the attitudes of those moving and staying are important. I would guess that younger residents – more used to diversity – are more open to diverse neighborhoods compared to their elders. Could the effect of moving – which was more positive either way – be related to residents feeling like they have options as opposed to having to stay where they are at? It is one thing to choose a neighborhood that fits your preferences as opposed to feeling like your community is changing without you being able to do anything about it.

This reminds me of Putnam’s study about neighborhood diversity:

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Given the historic salience of race and ethnicity – centuries both within England and the United States – finding consistently positive feelings about increasing neighborhood diversity may just take more time.

Therapy for those making the city to suburb move

For families that are having a hard time leaving the city behind, the move to the suburbs can be easier if others help:

People move for many reasons. Brokers, however, see a familiar thread: Couples move to the suburbs after having kids. And, as people marry later and live in the city longer, moving becomes more than just packing. Mentally and emotionally, experts say, people wrestle with changing from city dweller to suburbanite.

“I see this all the time with my practice,” said David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center, which has offices in Chicago and Skokie. “Where we live gives us a sense of identity.”

Swapping city life for the suburbs is different from moving to another town or neighborhood. Real estate agents say city-to-suburbs folks often need special hand-holding…

In September, Alison Bernstein launched Suburban Jungle in Chicago, which she started after moving from New York City to the surrounding area and feeling lost on which neighborhood would best fit her family. The company’s sole purpose is helping families transition from, for example, Lincoln Park to Lake Forest. Employees meet with shoppers, aiming to best match a town to their personality. They connect clients to suburb experts and locals at no cost, taking a commission from the sale.

“Our job is literally 98 percent therapy and not real estate,” Bernstein said. “It’s like, ‘Am I making the right move?’ It’s a lot of stress, and it’s a big change.”

Even as Americans move quite a bit (see evidence here and here), it can be a stressful process. However, two things strike me about this particular article:

  1. All the people cited here are on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The moves invoked include going from Lincoln Park to Hinsdale or Lake Forest. These are people who can afford to use a company like Suburban Jungle.
  2. Some of the fear of the suburban life might be driven by negative stereotypes of the suburbs. Some of these may have some truth – such as having fewer entertainment spots in the suburbs – but the typical suburban critiques (which have a long history dating back nearly a century) present a very one-sided view.

All together, being able to move to these kinds of suburban communities – wealthy, safe, good schools, clean, high property values – would be a dream for many people. On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, people often move to the suburbs seeking necessities such as work or cheaper housing but can end up in suburbs that have many problems that cities feature.

Moving a 762 ton Chicago house

To make room for the development of the McCormick Place entertainment district, a heavy landmark home from South Prairie Avenue has to be moved:

The house, built in 1888 by Rees, widow of real estate pioneer and land surveyor James H. Rees, is the last structure standing on the 2100 block of South Prairie. The house was granted landmark status in 2012 by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

Moving the 762-ton house will be a monumental job, involving 29 remote-controlled hydraulic dollies with a total of 232 wheels. The total weight, including equipment, is 1,050 tons…

The authority is spending more than $6 million to move the home and the adjacent coach house. The new plot of land cost an additional $1.9 million. The home won’t change owners, but the authority will also compensate the private owners with $450,000…

Last month, workers did a practice run, moving the much smaller coach house to its new location. It weighed a mere 185 tons.

Though the relocation will be among one of the heaviest in U.S. history, it won’t set any records. Guinness World Records lists the Fu Gang Building in China’s Guangxi province as the heaviest building moved intact. The 16,689-ton building was moved in 2004.

Two notable things here:

1. This is quite a project. Read the story for more of the details including what they laid on top of the road in preparation for the move as well as how they secured the home on its pad so it doesn’t fall off during the move.

2. South Prairie Avenue used to be the home for wealthy Chicagoans. Here is more from the Wikipedia entry on Prairie Avenue:

During the last three decades of the 19th century, a six-block section of the street served as the residence of many of Chicago’s elite families and an additional four-block section was also known for grand homes. The upper six-block section includes part of the historic Prairie Avenue District, which was declared a Chicago Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places…

By 1877 the eleven-block area of Prairie Avenue as well as Calumet Avenue housed elite residences. By 1886 the finest mansions in the city, each equipped with its own carriage house, stood on Prairie Avenue. In the 1880s and 1890s, mansions for George Pullman, Marshall Field, John J. Glessner and Philip Armour anchored a neighborhood of over fifty mansions known as “Millionaire’s Row”. Many of the leading architects of the day, such as Richard Morris Hunt, Henry Hobson Richardson and Daniel Burnham designed mansions on the street. At the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, guidebooks described the street as “the most expensive street west of Fifth Avenue”. However, after Bertha Palmer, society wife of Potter Palmer, built the Palmer Mansion that anchored the Gold Coast along Lake Shore Drive, the elite residents began to move north.

While the wealthiest area was several blocks north, this home is part of an area once very important to Chicago’s elite. Yet, like many areas in major cities, redevelopment is common as people and businesses move and new residents and leaders bring in new ideas.

Countering blanket statements about cities and suburbs

A Dallas columnist argues typical views of the city and suburbs are outdated:

Yet we seem to cling stubbornly to outdated city-vs.-suburb cliches and mutual suspicions that serve no purpose other than to make people think ill of one another.

On one side are quasi-racist Dallas baiters for whom “urban” is thinly veiled doublespeak for poor, minority, crime-plagued neighborhoods where government is unfailingly corrupt and public schools actually make kids stupider. It’s a segregationist stereotype that by now should be eroded by three decades worth of urban revitalization, crime reduction and development of spectacular public spaces.

On the other are sanctimonious hipsters who use “suburban” as an insult that describes selfish, conformist commuters who drive everywhere in super-sized SUVs, spend their leisure time at the mall, vote like the people next door and think “art” is a Thomas Kinkade print. It’s a myopic definition that hasn’t budged since Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road in 1961.

The truth is that the places we live are as individual as we are, and we choose them based on our individual priorities — entertainment, safety, good schools, friendly neighbors, what we can afford, what we want to see when we look out the window.

I agree with one conclusion but not the other. First, individual communities, whether they are urban neighborhoods with a sense of place or far-flung suburbs, are unique and have different characters. This is particularly true for a number of the people who live there and buy, in terms of housing but also symbolically and culturally, into the place. Both cities and suburbs are assumed to be all alike and this is simply not the case. There are distinguishing differences between these different types, such as population density, the number of nearby jobs and business, the kinds of housing, the history, etc. but it is silly to lump them all together.

On the second conclusion, it isn’t quite as simple as suggesting people make individual choices. This may feel like it is the case, particularly for those with means (money, status), but even those people are constrained by the lifestyles they desire. But, people with less means have fewer choices and then are restricted by cheaper housing options or what is close to jobs. In other words, residential choices tend to fall into patterns based on class and race, whether in the cities or suburbs.