Should I say hello to people I know on campus when they are walking by with their heads buried in their phones?

A college campus has many people walking around while looking at their phones. This leads to a common dilemma: should I say hello to someone when they are so engrossed by their smartphone? Earlier this week, I chose not to and I realized this is my default setting.

Here is my reasoning: these people are signaling they are busy or occupied. Walking in particular ways alerts others that they are not to be disturbed. Such behaviors include: closely looking at a smartphone screen; using headphones; talking on the phone; talking to someone walking next to them. Indeed, it is hard to be holding a smartphone while walking and not be viewed as saying, “Don’t disturb me.” (The only exception I could quickly think of: the number of people willing to offer to take a picture for you. I have had several people do this recently and I found it strange. Are selfies out? Did I look like I needed help?) I am helping these phone-lookers out: by not disturbing them and breaking their concentration, I am helping them accomplish what they need to do.

I do not know how many of these people I know would consider it a distraction or inconvenience if I did say hello. The posture of avoiding social interaction may be unintentional. We have a fairly friendly campus and if I see faculty, staff, and students that I know, we generally exchange greetings. Our regional norms are for fairly friendly greetings in public. As our students note, we are not quite the South but we are also not the Northeast.

If I were walking around campus with my nose buried in my phone, the biggest issue I would have with being greeted would be this: it might take me a second or two to recognize who issued the greeting. Rather than having the long lead-up to greetings where you see the person from a distance and can mentally prepare their name and your words (plenty of time for impression management), I am stirred from my focus. This will likely lead to a more generic greeting from me.

Will all this lead to the downfall of sociability on our campus? Probably not. Will it lead to more accidents as people walk into other and things? This has already happened. If anything, we will probably see more of his as time goes on and campus norms may continue to adjust to changing sociability.

The factors that keep stop some Americans from moving even when they have opportunities elsewhere

Richard Florida summarizes survey data that looks at why Americans are resistant to moving:

The survey identifies respondents’ most recent move, their probability of moving in the next two years, and other data related to moving including job opportunities and income prospects, housing costs, the distance from current home, costs of moving to various locations, crime rates, taxes, community values and norms, and proximity to family and friends. The researchers use these data to estimate the overall costs—what they call the “willingness to pay” or WTP—for people to move different locations. They then use statistical models to examine the importance of these psychological factors compared to other mostly financial explanations.

A significant reason for the decline in mobility is that many of us are highly attached to our towns. Nearly half of those in the survey (47 percent) identify as rooted. The rooted are disproportionately white, older, married, homeowners, and rural. Their reasons for not moving are more psychological than economic: proximity to family and friends, and their involvement in the local community or church.

Another 15 percent identify as stuck, lacking the resources or ability to move. The stuck have less formal education, are in worse health, and are less satisfied with their jobs, the survey finds. In addition, they are more likely to live in cities and live relatively close to family members. Their reasons for not moving are mainly economic: the costs of moving, the affordability of housing in other locations, the difficulty of qualifying for a new mortgage, and the perception that there is less opportunity for them elsewhere…

It turns out that the personal costs of moving—and leaving family members, loved ones, and friends behind—are quite high. According to the study, the average American perceives not moving as worth a sacrifice of more than 100 percent of income. The psychological cost of leaving family and friends alone equates to 30 percent. As the study reads: “The median person in our sample will forego 30 percent of his or her income in order to stay close to family.”

I’m guessing there is a lot more to explore here with more data collected from a variety of angles.

Why does Florida talk of these factors as primarily psychological factors? The survey results do not sound like Americans are afraid of moving but rather there are broader social and economic forces that both tie them to their current communities and limit their perceived options elsewhere. Together, these sound like sociological conditions.

How does this fit with suggestions that local ties and interactions are fewer in number or weaker in intensity in America today compared to the past? Or, do Americans now have tools that allow them to maintain and stay in certain social networks without a need to move across networks or join new ones?

How can researchers get at a different cultural milieu regarding mobility? Over time, how could Americans shift from fairly mobile to less mobile?

Would less door-to-door trick-or-treating and more community Halloween events decrease or increase social interactions?

If Halloween is indeed evolving away from neighborhood trick-or-treating (good discussion here), are the replacement or alternative or additional events in downtowns, at churches, and activities organized by other groups leading to more or less community and social interactions? Thinking out loud:

-Going door-to-door often involves interacting with people who are near you in physical proximity. Even if neighborhood interactions are declining, people would be more likely to run into each other at other times just because they live near each other.

-Going to centralized Halloween events in other locations means more people might gather together. But, their interactions might be limited. Perhaps it depends on what commonalities people at the event may share – a church event could involve a number of core community members as could a downtown event where local luminaries or figures are involved. On the other hand, community or organized events could involve more people just dropping in and out after acquiring candy and a lower likelihood of later interactions.

In both cases, the practice of getting candy could do little to build community if (1) candy is the only goal and (2) the likelihood of subsequent interactions is limited. It would be easy to turn Halloween into an exercise is gathering a commodity with few opportunities to interact with people.

And more broadly, how much is Halloween a family or community holiday compared to other big celebrations like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4th?

Dating and the coming and going of parlors

Skimming through a conservative take on dating in the modern era, I ran into a part involving the physical spaces where couples interact:

As a result, courtship morphed into dating, with couples venturing from family parlors and front porches to dance halls and, yes, the proverbial back seat. The parlor courtship rituals had been, of course, dependent on one’s family actually having a home with a parlor. As a result of the industrial revolution, families increasingly lived in tenements and apartments that lacked such amenities, so the shift was as much forced by the demographic shifts in the U.S. as by changes in cultural mores.

I could quibble with the details and take interest in the larger issue. Regarding the parlor, I would guess that many Americans in the 1800s into the 1900s did not have access to a parlor. This formal living room was part of a larger home of a wealthier family. Until then, many people lived in a single room or a limited number of rooms where it would be a waste to have a formal entertaining space that could have only a single use. This was true in rural settings – think of the first dwellings in the Little House on the Prairie books – and cities – apartments and limited space. The parlor/living room was linked to the middle-class and the single-family home, something that became part of a consistent American Dream in the early 1900s and became more accessible to more Americans in the 1920s and then the 1950s. And the parlor lasted only so long: living rooms are on the way out with more emphasis on using kitchens and great rooms for social spaces.

The larger issue is worth pondering: how do physical spaces shape relationships and vice versa? Spaces matter for relationships to form and develop. The ideal that developed in the 1800s emphasized a nuclear family dwelling in a private home. Additionally, the middle-class private home was viewed as the domain of women. Thus, intimate relationships moved to this setting. With the invention and then spread of the automobile, people could pursue relationships in cars as well as more easily access other locations. Urbanization likely had a similar effect: by putting people into close proximity with more people and more spaces, couples could easily access more than just the family dwelling. Today, dating can take place in an online realm and the privacy of bedrooms, possibly bypassing any public settings.

Including shopping malls on a list of former unifying institutions

It not news that Americans have less confidence in institutions and participate less in civic and voluntary associations. Yet, can we include shopping malls as part of a list of institutions that used to bring Americans together? Nancy Gibbs, the former editor-in-chief at Time, suggests as much:

For reasons cultural, economic, demographic, psychographic, we are divided as a country perhaps not more, but differently than ever before. What were once unifying institutions are declining—Rotary Clubs, churches, even malls. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness are shredded by rising tribal furies and passions. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill.

The best argument I have seen for how shopping malls bring people together is from sociologist Elijah Anderson who argues in The Cosmopolitan Canopy that certain shopping areas can bring together people across race and class lines. Malls in the past and present were places that could encourage contact – at least some proximity – between people of different backgrounds as they hunted for consumer goods or entertainment.

However, shopping malls are not doing well these days. With the rise of big box stores and online shopping, people simply do not go to the mall as much any longer. They may have similar experiences encountering the other in other retail settings – as one professor once told our class, you need to go to Walmart to see the real America – but there is now much freedom to avoid other shoppers all together.

Ultimately, I am a little hesitant to place shopping malls past or present on a list of unifying institutions. This is because much of the activity is driven by consumers seeking out the best deal with themselves and occasionally interacting with or noticing others. Malls are about consumption, not interacting with people. In contrast, traditional markers of civic decline – like political behavior or participating in voluntary organizations – require a higher level of interaction with people. If the shopping mall is the best we can hope for in terms of Americans interacting with each other, we are already in trouble.

Societal goals: avoiding society through online shopping

The comic Take It From the Tinkersons recently had a strip hinting at a major consequence of online shopping:

While this might be a bit of hyperbole, there is some truth to this. Is one of the appeals of online shopping the ability to avoid society and social interactions? Even shopping at your local big box store requires rubbing shoulders with other shoppers and a brief interaction with a cashier (even with self-checkout, you still have an overseer).

At the least, online shopping provides evidence of the significant shift that happened in Western societies in the last few hundred years. The earliest sociologists were very interested in the switch from tight-knit village or agrarian life to the less connected and varied urban life. Marx saw tremendous consequences for labor and the individual within an economic system rooted in burgeoning cities. Durkheim compared mechanical and organic solidarity, a shift toward a complex division of labor where individuals now depended on others to do essential tasks for their lives. Tonnies contrasted gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, more direct social interactions versus indirect social interactions.

Online shopping of the sorts we have today may only be possible in a highly complex and individualized society such as our own. The process of moving a product from its production point to a warehouse to your home or business through online clicks is quite complicated and amazing. Yet, it really does limit social interactions on the shopping end. As private individuals, we can now make choices and receive our products away from scrutiny. It would be an error to think that this private purchase is now removed from social influence – with the spread of media and influence of social media, we may be influenced by generalized social pressures more than ever – but the direct social experience is gone.

This could have big implications for social life. Will buying habits significantly change now that immediate social interactions and social pressure is removed? Will we become used to such social transactions not involving people that we will be willing to remove social interactions from other areas? There will certainly be consequences of increasing online shopping and public life – even if it is related to individuals consuming products in a capitalistic system – may just suffer for it.

 

Can neighbors act respectfully toward a nearby teardown McMansion owner?

McMansions constructed in established neighborhoods can draw the ire of neighbors but one resident of Frederick, Maryland suggests civility should win the day:

As for the Magnolia Avenue controversy, the proposed house to be built is certainly not a mass-built, PUD-style “McMansion.” I believe it is just like the one being built near West Second Street and College. I walked down Magnolia the other day and there are numerous, very nice modifications to existing homes that I believe are inconsistent with the original architecture and a couple of houses that have been remodeled that don’t look like others there. I don’t think those modifications would have been allowed if this neighborhood were in the historical preservation area. I think the Artises’ home will be a great asset to the neighborhood. But now is not the time to restrict the Artises’ property rights after they made a significant financial decision based on existing laws and regulations.

I have met the Artis family. They are really nice people, and I believe any neighborhood would love to have them as their neighbor. Regardless of how this all turns out, I hope that we all remember that this is about a family more than it is about a house, and that our comments and discussions should remain kind and respectful — because we may be getting some nice new neighbors soon. We can’t just roll up the sidewalks once we move in and not allow anyone else in.

Granted, this resident is in favor of property rights and does not seem to mind the particular proposed home. But, the larger question is intriguing: is a McMansion next door or down the street worth incivility for years or a lifetime? The examples cited in the media – such as neighbors suing each other or consistently bringing the issue to the local government – suggest this is hard to do. Many would feel strongly if their immediate surroundings were impacted in a way that they felt was (1) negative and harmful as well as (2) unnecessary. Some would say that the teardown McMansion infringes on their quality of life and finances. They would suggest their anger and actions are justified.

At the same time, there are thousands of teardowns across the United States each year. How do the neighbors treat each other? Do they welcome the new homeowner to the neighborhood? If they dislike the new home, is there a frostiness that lasts a long time or does it eventually thaw? (For example, would someone deny their kid the chance to play with the kid in the new McMansion?) Perhaps the real answer is that many communities do not have thriving local social interactions to start with so the teardown issues do not matter much in the long run.

For more background on this particular case in Frederick, read here.