Stranger nation

Theresa Montgomery

A friend of mine says the world doesn’t run on money: It runs on trust.

Maybe that’s the reason Americans are becoming so isolated from each other. Are we losing ground because we don’t know people well enough to trust each other anymore? How can we feel safe in an anonymous world?

The American Sociological Review recently released the findings of a 2004 study on the social habits of Americans. Compared with the previous 1985 study, we’re slowly becoming a nation of lonely people.

One out of four Americans reported they have no one to confide in. One in 10 reported they confide only in their spouse.

How can we be so alone amidst the sea of faces we pass every day? Maybe our growing isolation results from ever-widening, but less deep, social interactions.

Twenty-first century Americans may know more people than our predecessors, but maybe we don’t know them very well. The fragility of today’s social connectedness feeds our mistrust, which then feeds our loneliness.

In this chicken-and-the-egg scenario, we have to start somewhere to break the cycle of loneliness and mistrust.

Maybe the place to start is with a sense of accountability. Our social bonds to our neighbors aren’t as tight as they used to be, and I don’t think that’s a change for the better.

In the small towns of the past, there existed an accountability that stemmed from knowing your neighbor. Jimmy didn’t steal Bobby’s bike because Mr. Smith would have recognized both boy and bike and told Jimmy’s parents what he was up to.

In today’s urban and suburban communities of nameless next-door neighbors, you’re on your own. Get a bike lock.

At times, it is the sense of responsibility we feel toward those close to us that motivates us to make moral choices. When we answer to each other for our actions, we choose more carefully.

For instance, if I choose to do something I know I shouldn’t, maybe I won’t be able to look my friend, or my mom, in the eye when I get home.

But what if we don’t have a close friend? What if we lose sight of the fact that what we do affects others? What if we care less about making the world better for others because we don’t know people we’re accountable to?

In this cycle, we feel less safe, so we trust others less. We grow more isolated, which makes us feel less safe. And then we make careless choices that make our world just a little bit less than it was for others.

If we want a better world, maybe we need to learn to trust each other again. If you can’t give a stranger the key to your house, maybe you can tell them your name.

Placing your confidence in the person sitting next to you in class – the one whose name you never asked – gives you both just a little more reason to show up next time.

Theresa Montgomery is senior newspaper journalism major and columnist for the Summer Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].