Saturday, September 02, 2006

Community, Isolation, and Socializing

I'm inspired to post about this in response to New Kid's recent post about her own tendency to isolate herself in her current location and how that relates to conducting a long-distance marriage with her husband. When I read the post yesterday, I immediately related to everything that she was saying about how isolating oneself can be an easy thing to do, and in reading the comment thread to her post today, what struck me is the range of people who identified with what NK wrote, whether married or unmarried, gay or straight, whatever.

As you all know, one of the reasons that I have decided to go on the market this year is in part because of this very issue - because of the fact that I don't feel like my "life" is here, or like I have a life here. As many (both on the blog and in my real life) have noted, moving may not be the answer to this, but the decision to try, to look and see what's out there, is very much connected to the fact that I have tried very hard to do things to make a life in this location and all of those efforts haven't resulted in me feeling rooted here. I've connected this failure to feel rooted at least in part to being single, to the fact that I'm not even close to dating/being in a relationship with anybody, but in reading New Kid's post it occurs to me that a relationship alone doesn't necessarily make a person feel rooted - particularly when one can't live in the same place with his/her partner.

See, this is the thing: this profession is pretty universally isolating. In part, we have to isolate ourselves in order to do our jobs. Grading is not social. Research is not social. Service commitments infringe on our weekends and evenings. In choosing this profession, we choose a lifestyle. But whereas making this choice may not seem very dangerous to us in graduate school, when we have a cohort of people to hang out with and who understand our experiences, or when we begin to think about joining this profession, when we probably still live in or near our hometowns, and have strong networks of family and/or friends who are geographically convenient to us, the reality is that most of us don't get jobs in our hometowns or in our grad school cities. We get jobs in places where we probably won't know more than one or two people if we're lucky, and we need to start from scratch. (And even if you did get a job in your grad school city, you're still weirdly isolated because your friends leave, or those who stay are still in a different life place from the one you're in, or whatever.)

The problem is, the vast majority of grown-up people don't start from scratch with making friends. They just don't. At a certain point, as Oso Raro noted in the comments over at New Kid's, friendships happen more organically. It's not like being 14 on the first day of school and having an expectation of making new friends. For grown-ups, the expectation is that you've got the friends you've got, and while you may meet new people, you most likely will not become "best friends forever" with most of them. But as an academic, uprooted from the social networks one builds over a lifetime when people ARE making their best friends forever - from ages 0-25 or so - what is a person supposed to do? Because when you move to a place, you NEED to make BFFs, whether you're married or single or somewhere in between. Because people need friends.

And the thing is, it's embarassing to say that as a 30+ year old person. It is embarassing not to have friends. It is embarassing not to know how to make friends.

What's funny about this is that I had a conversation with my best friend here about this very thing a while back. And it was like we were revealing a dirty secret to one another just in admitting that it sucks not to have friends here. (This is also ironic, I suppose, because we do have each other, but at the same time, having one friend is almost as pathetic as having none, you know?) At the time, I remember thinking that it was so good that we'd finally admitted this to each other, that we'd finally talked about it and stopped acting like the fact that neither one of us has been able to get it together to make friends is not a huge problem. And I had that same feeling when I read New Kid's post. It's important to shine a light on this. It's important to recognize that no matter how many friends a person has all over the country (and even the world) that a person still needs friends who are just down the street.


helenesch said...

Yes, I completely agree. I tend to think about the relationship issue most (I'm single and the prospect of meeting someone where I live seems slim), but as you point out, having friends *where you live* is really key to feeling rooted. I actually do have many friends, but most of them live far away from me now and I see them only occasionally (though we talk on the phone).

It wasn't until after my 5th year at my job that I suddenly realized that I'd crossed over some kind of treshold. I now have a solid handful of people I can call friends who actually live where I do and who I hang out with on a regular basis. And two of the women I'm closest to aren't academics, which I think is important. (I like to think that I'd have been quicker at making friends if I hadn't been in a relationship for the first 3-4 years). In any case, I finally realized that I feel fairly well connected here, and this issue of having friends here made a big difference.

Unlike most academics, though, it just so happened that my job is about 1.5 hours from where I grew up (where my parents still live) and only 1 hour from the city where I was an undergrad (where one very close friend still lives). So... I have an easier time feeling "rooted" here than if I ended up in some random location.

Hopefully the job search will turn up something really wonderful for you, but if it doesn't, it sounds like things would still be okay. I hope you continue to blog about it!

(And sorry for leaving such a long comment!)

phd me said...

Crazy, once again you have channeled the my thoughts: I'm really afraid that I'm not going to make friends here in PRU City. I've been berating myself for thinking this way for weeks now. I just got here, after all, and I'm just meeting people and they're all quite nice and we've been socializing and it's fine. But.

You're right about the BFF thing. I'm a thousand miles away from my friends, the people I really like and who like me back, with no strings attached. When I think about my future here, I'm really frightened that I won't develop that sort of friendship. It is embarassing but I'll say it with you: I don't know how to make friends as an adult. I'm talking real friends, not friendly people who enjoy a drink now and then. I didn't have good friends in grad school, I had friendly people - why should being a professor, with all the isolation that naturally entails, be any different?

So, yeah, I agree with you and I hope those friends you don't have there are just down the street in the next place.

Cats & Dogma said...

Hmmm...Yes, this is precisely what we're exoeriencing too. I am married, and happily so, but being very much an extrovert, and having children who keep us home more than we might otherwise be has meant that making friends has been our biggest disappointment about this new life.

We are stubbornly trying to create social situations: dinenr parties, barbecues, hiring more babysitters than we can maybe afford, lunching with colleagues, etc. But what that has created is generally a network of casual friends, even with a great deal of work.

There's still really no one to cull up and say, "Hey the game's on...wanna come over?" or "We're going out for a bite, wanna join us?"

It's the sorts of friendships that are firm enough that they needn't rely on ceremony or lots of preplanning to function.

I am heartened that helenesch has actually crossed that threshold, because we'll be here for a few years at minimum, so at least there's a threshold to cross. I wonder if it comes with tenure?

Flavia said...

Everything you say is so true--it's hard to make friends past a certain age, and being or feeling without friends makes one feel just so sad and desperate.

The other thing is, friends beget more friends. It's so easy to make friends when you already have a group of them--they're the friends or roommates or coworkers of existing friends, and they blend easily into your life, and the next thing you know, you're actually closer to the friend-of-friend than to the person who introduced you. When I was living in Major Eastern City there were SO MANY fabulous friends-of-friends whom I wanted to know better, or whom I semi-consciously DIDN'T pursue as friends, even though I liked them, because there just wasn't the time or the need.

But now, like Ph.D. Me, I feel as I did in grad school: uncertain how to begin assembling that group in the first place.

It's comforting to hear that other people have this problem too--and Dogma reminds me not to write off the married people (the other new hires in my department are all married). I think I tend to assume that they have no NEED of friends, or that they wouldn't want to socialize with a semi-singleton, but for most people that probably isn't true.

hypatia said...

I moved a lot as a kid and as such I think I learned how to make (or not make) friends. One thing I've found as an adult is that it helps to know people in multiple contexts if you're going to be friends with them. I mean - the person who is a colleague at work and who goes to your exercise class. Or the person you see at church and also see in the cafeteria at work. Or the person who lives down the street and you run into at the dog park. It's hard to be friends with people (I mean the, call up on the spur of the moment kinds of friends) if you only know them in one context. So, that is crummy because it's hard to do intentionally... Another way to make friends is to consistently show up to certain events on a regular basis (e.g. attend happy hour), and accept invitations even when they aren't perfectly convenient. It's also useful to invite others from another context to join you.

I also find it helpful if I do things I enjoy even if I do them by myself. For example, I hate going to movies and museums alone. It just feels depressing. But I found over time I ran out of things to talk about. So going to the art museum or movie alone gave me things to talk about with other people so that they might invite me along to do something similar in the future.

Making friends is hard. It takes alot of consistent work. And we think that other people have it better than we do and we're the only ones who feel this way. Which is clearly not true. I remember posting on Bright*'s blog a while back that I also give myself permission to fail at this sort of thing - I've only been in town a year, I shouldn't know a million people yet. It makes it slightly less awful. But I totally get why after 2-3 years with no social circle one would start looking for a different environment. Especially if all these things have been done and netted nothing.

For what it's worth, there's an interesting book by Wil Miller called Refrigerator Rights that might be worth reading - he makes a similar point about isolation but doesn't think it's just an academic thing.

Marcelle Proust said...

It is indeed a relief to know others have the same problem. For some, it's long-distance relationships that exacerbate it; for me, it's physical fatigue and time constraints, plus narrow interests/strong convictions: I'm an atheist and will not go to any religious institution even as a purely social effort; have little interest in politics; don't want to do literacy tutoring because I teach for a living; etc. You'd think I'd meet people at the gym, as much time as I spend there, but while there are people I recognize to say hi to, it doesn't foster friendshps.

kermitthefrog said...

I've been thinking about this question a fair amount recently, in particular because one of my good friends just moved across the ocean. It spurred me to count, and I realized that at the end of my first year in grad school I had maybe 1 friend who I could call up and invite to a movie. Now, at the beginning of my third year, I have 3. It's made me realize that life isn't like summer camp - you can't make BFF in 3 days - or even college, where living next door to someone gave you an instant dining hall companion. Thanks for bringing the dirty secret out into the open...

StyleyGeek said...

So true. And the worst thing is, if you can't get an open-ended contract, you keep having to move on just as you ARE starting to make some friends. Geekman's on his fourth temporary job since finishing his PhD, and I haven't even started on the cycle myself yet, but it's no doubt going to happen.

Each time, we've stayed put for a year and a half, two years, three years, and then moved across the country, or (the last two times) to a new country. Just as the social networks were starting to fall into place.

Continually starting from scratch is so demoralising.

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Loralee Choate said...

My husband is a very isolated person. He has very little emotional "Friendship need" whereas I have MASSIVE amounts of need in this particular area.

Friends are like breathing to me.

I have had times where I had no friends, really. It was a very hard time for me.

I realized that had to change, so I did exactly what you did, shook things up, moved, got involved in different areas and BAM...I found (With some difficulty) a core of about 6 people that I adore.

It isn't easy. I am the most EXTROVERTED person on the planet and guess what? I'm actually shy as hell. The difference is that my need for people shoves down my fear and awkwardness a lot of the time. I also just have to grit my teeth and make myself do it.

I think you are absoluetly marvelous for taking such a huge step to try and improve things. Many people would just stay in that zone out of fear.

I hope it goes well for you.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Thanks, Crazy, I totally agree with what you say here. And it is such a relief to see (here and at my place) that I'm not the only one who feels this way.

The other thing I've been thinking about this is how gender plays a role. I have one guy friend here, especially, whom I really wish was a girl, so I could call him up and say, "Let's go shopping/get lunch/go to the movies." Because while we have a ball hanging out on campus, I just don't feel able to do that (we're both married, it would just be too weird).

USJogger said...

Amen, sister! Testify!

I have been married to Mrs. Jogger for almost 20 years, and I'll always have her as a best friend. But it has often struck me that I really don't have any other friends with whom I could talk about my problems. And when Mrs. Jogger is a problem, to whom shall I go?

Partly it's because of the paripatetic life of an academic. Since being married, we spent two years at Grad School 1, two years at Temporary Position, five years at Grad School 2, four years at Tenure-Track Position That Didn't Work Out, and have only now settled in to what looks like a Long Term Position. But even so, most of my "closest friends" are the husbands of Mrs. Jogger's friends. Pathetic.


RLT said...

As I think someone mentioned, this can also be a problem for those who move for reasons other than academic jobs. The workplace does not always provide people who are potential close friends, even if they make - thank goodness - friendly colleagues.

The place I made the most and closest friends was the place I began taking tennis lessons and ended up joining a team. There was a night league for those who worked daytime and tournaments for men, women and mixed. I would think that the potential would be there for many different sports, even if they were only played individually rather than in teams.

Another thing I was planning on doing was taking a cooking class. There are all kinds of classes available for almost any interests. I was also thinking about taking auto shop. Book clubs could be another possible way to meet people with similar interests. Maybe yoga or martial art classes.

I think the key here is looking for activities you would enjoy outside the workplace. Not only can this add some balance to your life, but it will put you in contact with people who share your interests. Still, you have to remember that friendships are just like any other relationships, they take work from both people involved and will usually take a while to become really strong.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I'm so lucky, I think ... I have met a couple of people to hang out with, and thing I've got a social circle under way ... but they are all pretty much married folk, so no BFF. One thing I've also found s that I feel a bit like I'm being disloyal to my old friends by making new ones. Which is dumb. I also worry -- dunno if anyone else does this -- that I end up divulging way too much to new people in an attempt to forge friendships faster. I'm really glad that Nice Colleague friend has the same tendency! What scares me a little is that she has been at SLAC for several years, and is married, but still feels isolated ...

Oso Raro said...

C'est evident que you've touched a nerve here. The commentary on isolation has been popping up all over, including over at New Kid but also at Sfrajett. Flavia, and other places, almost like a viral theme. This leads me to think that perhaps it is also indicative of some of the "taking stock" that happens at the commencement of the school year, when we pause (briefly, so briefly) to ponder where we are and how we feel.

In some sense, perhaps too this is the trauma of reentry, of leaving behind summer and its various personal pleasures for the indeterminacy and coldness of the workplace, when we have to face up to some uncomfortable facts about our professional lives and our professional choices. One of the things I've always thought is that the academy is not really, in some important ways, a place for "people persons." It doesn't inculcate sociality and its attendant joys, and in fact seems to attract more than its fair share of sociopaths (who we all know because we have worked with them, studied under or with them, or suffered their presence). In fact, in my experience, the most "successful" academics have always been the ones who sublimate their personal lives to their work, working constantly, producing and participating in committees and academic politics with a zealous and implacable focus. Personally, I'm not too interested in that methodology, and the need for sociality can be, in this sense, a real limitation on one's future prospects in the Biz, as depressing as that sounds. The industry attitude, regardless of whether it is actually articulated, is that we have better things to be doing than socialising.

That of course doesn't mean we cannot have community, it just means sometimes it takes on strange formations. It all is so dependent on location and cohort and moment as well (Are you married? Does your partner live with you? Do you have children? Are your colleagues open and amenable? Do you live in a place that inculcates sociality? Does your institution nurture collegiality? Is it competitive and horrible? etc).

There are the immediate solutions to isolation, all of which can be tried depending on level of desperation (reaching out, lunches, dining halls, friend dates, clubs, organisations, etc), but the long-term implications of the lack of sociality that we face as academics are the ones that are really challenging, and that defy easy answers.

Bardiac said...

This post and New Kids are both really insightful.

I don't think the problem necessarily gets solved with tenure. Nor do I think it's only an academic problem, but happens in other fields where people move without pre-existing networks.

But because we spend so much of our time with people we can't really be friends with (our students; yeah, there are exceptions, but rare), it makes having friends our own age even more important.

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