Monthly Archives: May 2012

Do Commuters Have Fewer Friends?

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.” (The New Yorker, “There and Back Again,” 4/16/2007)

For the last three weeks, I worked a temp gig that involved an hour and fifteen minute commute both ways. Two and a half hours in the car meant a lot of solo time. It’s pretty lonely business. (Many thanks to Ira Glass for keeping me company during the rides! Mr. Glass and his This American Life gang made the trafficky drive almost enjoyable.)

I wasn’t surprised to find research that supported the idea that commuting is isolating. I was, however, suprised at how extreme that research is. Ten percent fewer social connections for every ten minutes is no joke. This research comes from Robert Putnam, Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, “about the disintegration of American civic life.”

I can’t imagine the commute had that kind of effect on me, because I only did it for three weeks. But I have plenty of friends with a long daily drive who’ve been at it for seven years. The funny thing is that the two people I can think of off the bat who have super-long commutes are actually two of the people I know with the most friends ever. They are super social. Either they defy statistics, or they would really be the most social people I’ve ever met if they didn’t commute.

Plenty of people enjoy having some commute time — you can read, talk on the phone, listen to music, have a minute of alone time before the chaos of the day begins. For that, I think public transportation is probably better than driving, though the article says some drivers love the freedom to come and go as they please, rather than relying on a train or bus schedule.  But still, says The New Yorker, “the driver’s seat is a lonely place. People tend to behave in their cars as though they are alone in a room. Road rage is one symptom of this; on the street or on the train, people don’t generally walk around calling each other assholes. Howard Stern is another; you can listen to lewd evocations without feeling as though you were pushing the bounds of the social contract. You could drive to work without your pants on, and no one would know.”

There is something very alone-seeming about being in the car. People can see you, of course, but it still seems so private. A blessing and a curse. For me, for those three weeks, it didn’t just make me feel alone because I spent 2.5 hours in the car. It was also that by the time I got home at night, it was late, I was pooped, and I had less energy to go out. Thus taking away even more time I would normally spend with pals.

For those of you with long commutes, I highly recommend this read. It’s got some extremely interesting info. And in the meantime, chime in. Does your commute make you lonely? Do you think you’d have more friends if you spent less time hauling yourself to and from work?


Filed under The Search

Celebrate Memorial Day with the Best Video Ever

Happy Memorial Day! For your holiday viewing pleasure, I bring you this video. Which is amazing. And I’m really really upset that I’m not BFFs with them so that I could have been a part of it.


Filed under The Search

Why Girl Crushes and Creativity Are Intertwined

There’s a really great article in this month’s W Magazine on girl crushes. It does seem that the phenomenon gets a big story every couple of years, like this one that I devoured in 2005, and wrote about myself. And yes, it’s another one of those articles I’m annoyed I didn’t write myself. (What else is new?) Still, I like this one especially, because it talks about how creativity and girl crushes are, in some weird way, intertwined. That we so often have girl crushes on those who are creating just the things that we wish we had created ourselves, or those who make us feel like we too can live our dreams. We don’t just want to be friends with them, we kind of want to be them.

Says writer (and my new gc?) Thessaly la Force:

“The ‘girl crush’ may sound ­silly, but sometimes it takes something ­unserious to get us talking about a serious subject: the ambitions of young creative women and the need for ­worthy role models. Among my own nominees for inaugural members of the Girl Crush Hall of Fame are Zadie Smith, with her daring, brilliance, and wild success; Joan ­Didion, with her cool, spare prose; Patti Smith, with her soul and wisdom; Sofia Coppola, with her chic grace and unmistakable taste; and Tina Fey, with her goofy smile and razor wit. Each of them has accomplished something the rest of us dream of doing. And because they’ve done it, we feel we can too.”

Yes, yes, yes to Zadie Smith and Didion and Tina Fey. I often find myself staring at the picture of Joan Didion on the back of The Year of Magical Thinking, dissecting the way she leans over the railing, eying her daughter and husband while wearing that cool flowy dress with the ocean backdrop, and will myself to be her in that moment. She’s just, so… cool.

See for yourself.

Writing wise, I feel similarly about Mindy Kaling, of course. And Jhumpa Lahiri. And Sloane Crosley. And Jenny Lawson (who I’ll be doing a panel with at Printer’s Row! OMG!)

Who would you add to the Girl Crush Hall of Fame? (Keep in mind, I think this is a very different question than the BFF one. I don’t think Joan Didion and I would be BFFs. I would be way too nerdy fan girl for her.)


Filed under The Search

The Hard Facts: Fight or Flight for Men

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“According to [100-year-old] doctrine, humans and most animal species show the ‘fight-or-flight’ response to stress. Only since the late 1990s have some scientists begun to argue that women show an alternate “tend-and-befriend” response to stress …. Men, in contrast, were still assumed to become aggressive under stress. [Researchers have] refuted this assumption, saying: ‘Apparently men also show social approach behavior as a direct consequence of stress.'” (“Stressed Men Are More Social” ;,  5/21/2012)

This is so not me. When I am stressed I curl up into a ball on the bed or, in extreme cases, on the floor. The latter usually prompts Matt to declare something like “Oh no! We have a floor situation!” as I hug the ground. Stress makes me tired, and even more inclined to zone out in front of the TV, pretending for as long as I can that the stressors on my to-do list don’t actually exist.

It’s not the most productive coping mechanism but it does the trick.

According to this research, most women deal by becoming protective and “friendship-offering.” Men, too. Basically, we are nicer, and more pro-social, when our plates are full. Is that because we are trying to put off our stress by socializing? Or because we all cope with stress better when we can talk it out with others? Maybe the company of others just makes the supposed weight of the world on our shoulders not so, well, weighty?

The researchers who did this study say it has big-time consequences: “From previous studies in our laboratory, we already knew that positive social contact with a trusted individual before a stressful situation reduces the stress response. Apparently, this coping strategy is anchored so strongly that people can also change their stress responses during or immediately after the stress through positive social behavior,” said study co-author Markus Heinrichs.

So, the lesson: If you know you are about to go into a stressful situation, have lunch with a friend first. This will help reduce your “stress response” to the situation. Translation: You might actually remain calm. If a preventative lunch isn’t an option, meet with your friend as soon as possible after the stress-inducing event. You’ll be looking for some friend-time, and your stress levels will thank you.

And next time your husband tells you he’s too stressed for a couple-date, show him this research. And tell him he’s been Friended. (Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “lawyered!” but it’ll do.)

Do you feel more social when you are stressed out? Does stress make the men in your life more social?



Filed under The Search

Scenes from an Airplane

Last night I made an airplane friend! A legit, now-I-know-your-name-and-will-address-you-as-such-in-the-neighborhood airplane friend. Granted he is 52, and probably not BFF material, but he’s someone I didn’t know yesterday and I do today. So that’s something.

What’s funny is that we sat next to each other for a three-hour flight, which was really closer to four considering we sat on the plane for 45 minutes after landing while the flight crew searched down the gate agent to open the airplane door, and we didn’t speak a word the whole time. I was too busy watching the man and woman in the row ahead of us get acquainted, them exchanging life stories and me eavesdropping to see if they would just trade phone numbers already.

It was only after we deplaned, and my husband and I noticed how offensively long the cab line was, that we started talking to our plane neighbor. He too was horrified by the cab line. When he saw our faces, and how quickly we made a u-turn, he asked if we were thinking of taking the train.

We were.

Where do you live? he asked.

Lincoln Park. Near DePaul.

He mentioned his cross streets and, wouldn’t you know it, we are next door neighbors! One block apart! So the three of us took the train together, chatting about work and the neighborhood and NATO. His name was David, we learned, and we offered him a ride home from the train station.

And now we are neighbor pals. Count on delayed flights and backed up cab lines to bring people together.

So at least one relationship took off in those friendly skies. I’ll confess to you that I got all Harriet-the-Spy on the couple in front of me to see if love was blooming, and sadly they parted ways as soon as she got to the airport restroom. Such a bummer.

It seems everyone has gotten to know a neighbor in the most unlikely of places. What about you?


Filed under The Search

You’re Rich, Your Friends… Not So Much

I have an airport ritual: I always buy and read one magazine that I’ve never read before. As a journalist, I figure it helps me stay abreast of what’s out there, and as a reader, it opens my eyes to articles and stories I might never otherwise know about. A couple of days ago, while waiting to board a flight to Florida, I picked up Town & Country. I’ll admit, being the summer camp junkie that  I am, I was intrigued by the cover story “America’s Summer Camp Revival.” And T&C fit the airport bill. I’ve never picked up a copy before, likely because it’s geared toward more socialitey and classy folks than I.

Anyway, I got a kick out of an article in the magazine’s “Social Graces” column, entitled “Rich You, Poor Me.” Here’s the dek: “When friendships span socioeconomic divides, the possible pitfalls are many. And they must be navigated with care.” I’ve written about this topic before. Friend dating, while great for the social life, can be hard on the wallet, and there’s nothing more frustrating than going to a meal with friends and being asked to fork over $100 for the bill when you don’t drink because your friends decided to splurge on bubbly. But it’s also rough when friends know you’re trying to save cash and simply don’t invite you places. It’s not fair to get penalized because you can’t afford another expensive night on the town.

The reason I was so interested in the T&C article is that, given its readership, the column approaches the story from the opposite side of the fence. My blog post was about what to do when you want to hang with friends but can’t necessarily spend spend spend. T&C writer Henry Alford writes what to do when, basically, you’re rich but your friends aren’t. I guess the people reading this magazine aren’t shy about spending on a meal or two.

Here’s his advice: “First, offers of birthday celebrations not withstanding, it’s best if we don’t make an exception of the impecunious person. If your weekend in the country includes a glamorous balloon trip that will set each person back $500, then it’s lovely if you yourself (or some other member of the party) hang back with Mr. Cash-Strapped so that, come sunset, he isn’t the only tiny ant on the landscape. Second, we can reduce most financial awkwardness if we take an ironic or comic approach to the fanciness of the occasion in question. ‘Of course, we all need to go horseback riding and wear the inn’s collection of top hats: We’re practicing for our Currier and Ives portrait.’ ‘I think it’s absolutely imperative that we each rent our own beach cabana–you never know what you might pick up from someone else’s shade.'”

Alford does, actually, make some recommendations if you are the “relatively poor” amongst your friends. “It’s probably valid and useful to speak candidly and tell people you’re on a budget, or that vintage Lamborghini rentals are beyond your reach. But the trick is to do so without sounding like Al Gore a plastics convention. Self-deprecation is a welcome addition here: ‘That sounds lovely, but I think I better say no. I’ve been feeling a little Dorothea Lange recently, and I’m really trying to hone my grimness.'”

Besides that fact that I had to look up 90% of the references in these excerpts, I find the tone of the whole piece sort of hilarious. Clearly I am not the Fabulous that this magazine is catering to.

But it still brings up an important question: If you know you’re in better financial shape than your friends, how do you avoid potential awkwardness?


Filed under The Search

The Hard Facts: Friends and Lovers

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“According to the study, two fifths [of women] admitted to needing their friend’s approval [in a romantic relationship,] whilst 12% would even end a relationship if their pals didn’t approve.” (“Tenth of Women Would Dump Boyfriend if Friends ‘Didn’t Approve'” ; Female First 5/10/2012)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any of these twelve percent in action. I’ve seen friendships end when a pal doesn’t approve of a romantic interest, but never the other way around.

I know there are some women who might not pursue a guy that her BFF doesn’t approve of. And if a bestie revealed that a guy was cheating or some such horribleness, I’d like to think the pal would act on that information and end things. But I’ve never seen a friend say, “You know what my darling friend, that guy you’re dating is a jerk and you should dump his sorry ass,” and have it end in anything other than a girl fight.

The study, which was conducted by the double dating site Date With a Mate, surveyed 1,193 women across the UK — so it’s possible that this kind of “sisters over misters” (yeah, I said it) is more common across the pond. But I doubt it.

Here are some more numbers to come out of the research:

  • When asked if they needed their friends approval when they started dating a new person, more than two fifths, 42%, of respondents answered ‘yes’. (This seems more accurate. We’re more interested in our friends’ opinions before we fall for someone.)
  •  Only 8% of the respondents said that they would end a new relationship if their mother didn’t approve. (I guess moms aren’t the same as BFFs after all.)
  • 14% of respondents said a friendship has ended after a friend didn’t approve of the partner.
  •  89% of respondents said it was important that their friends ‘approved’ of their new relationship. But only 59% of the respondents said that they believed it was important that their new partner’s friends like them.
  • 21% of the respondents said that they felt nervous when introducing a new partner to their friends

Any of this research suprise you? Or stricke a chord? Have you ever ended a relationship because your BFF didn’t approve?


Filed under The Search