Social Studies

Do you remember when it wasn’t weird to call someone on the phone? When you could call someone up, spontaneously, and the other person didn’t think that someone had died? I’ve been thinking about social capital lately, and also social courage. Social capital, the trust and connection between various people, was in the news in November, when a report by the Toronto Foundation revealed our city is quite low on it. Maybe it sounds airy-fairy, but it turns out social capital is vital: it can increase civic engagement, improve health (loneliness, one of our modern epidemics, has negative health outcomes), and improve our happiness overall. There’s even a subset of social capital called “bridging capital” that helps people connect in a positive way with people who are different than themselves. It’s pretty much the opposite of Twitter.

And then there’s social courage, which is a term I only heard recently on an episode of the Slow Home podcast that had an interview with Jocelyn Glei. Glei pointed out that now, when we don’t know something, we seek answers in our phones rather than other people. Think of the last time you were going to a restaurant: you probably looked it up online, maybe found some reviews, made a reservation on OpenTable, and then when it was time to go plugged the address into your phone. The magic of the internet! And yet it also took some interactions out of the mix: asking people where to eat, calling to make a reservation, asking someone for directions when you got close. And maybe those connections don’t matter—they’re not exactly social capital—but avoiding them does get us out of practice and makes us less brave for future interactions.

It shouldn’t be scary to ask someone for directions, but sometimes it can feel that way if we’re low on social courage. I would suspect that marginalized groups might be a little lower on it too—if there’s a higher likelihood of a negative income you’d be less likely to engage. But in general, as our lives get more tech-saturated, it seems likely our social courage will continue to wane: we used to go to stores, talk to a cashier, and now we can order from Amazon, or use the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. We talk about frictionless payments (tapping your credit/debit, one-click buying), but we’re making human interaction so frictionless it’s non-existent. Our social touchpoints are becoming touchscreens.

In a recent comic column in Yes Magazine, Sarah Lazarovic brings the necessity for social capital and our lack of social courage together beautifully. I love the scene with the man rehearsing his borrowing script in front of the mirror. It’s become scary to knock on a stranger’s door. (Lazarovic designed a printable badge you can put on your door to say you’re open to borrowing.) The comic also notably mentions the redemption of oft-denigrated “small talk,” which, recent studies suggest, actually makes us happier. Who would have thought people actually did want to talk on the subway?

Modern life has made it possible to move through the city, even move through the internet, like a ghost. Which is comfortable and easy, but it isn’t making us happy. And in the long run, the outcome is quite grim: it means we’re moving through life like ghosts. While yes, we still have friends and family, fewer and fewer people might notice we’re gone.

The good news is that this week I witnessed two examples of social capital in abundance. On Monday, I attended a lecture at the Parkdale & Toronto Horticultural Society. The event had at least 100 attendees, and in the announcements at the beginning of the meeting, you could see how many people were actively involved in running this event and the society’s many other ones. As they prepare for their annual plant sale, you could sign up on the day before, you could help people dig up and separate plants to donate, you could bake for the volunteers, transport plants, organize people, and so on. It was heartening to see social engagement become civic engagement too, as the group discussed gardening grants, maintaining community parks, and building pollinator corridors. All the members wore name tags, and the event included and hour of tea and cookies before the lecture started. Cynical me thought, “An hour? What for?” but of course the lecture is only part of the point. The experience was buoying, all in all, though it must be said that 90% of the people there would not be questioned when they used a senior’s discount. Is this a generation that hasn’t lost their social courage? Or have they maintained it by virtue of being in this group, and ones like it? Given how much we hear about loneliness among the elderly, I think the latter.

Then last night I went to my local co-op grocery for a workshop on making water kefir. Co-ops are run on social capital, with everyone who is a member pitching in in running the store. Though it was close to my house, I’d (embarrassingly) never been before, because I was intimidated and hadn’t taken the time to learn how it worked. The workshop was lovely, with a facilitator whose enthusiasm was contagious, and a handful of super friendly participants. I left mind buzzing with new knowledge and positive interactions with strangers. Sure, I could have ordered my materials online, read some tutorials. But there was no replacing meeting someone who was passionate about it, getting to ask questions and spend time with real live people who I’d never have met otherwise.

Listen I’m an introvert, and I’m shy around strangers. This isn’t easy. But also it isn’t that hard. Spring is here, and people are coming out of hibernation. There’s no better time to check out something new, or simply to slow down and say hello.

 

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