Social challenges: What behaviors bind us, build community?

June 2013 Posted in Columnists & Opinion, Community

By Jennifer Hill

Are Americans becoming socially challenged?

It’s a question I have pondered and finally decided to search for an answer.

While walking my daughter to school, a woman was coming towards us so we  adjusted ourselves single file to let her pass and in that moment my eyes met hers. I naturally greeted her with, “Good morning.” Expressionless, she did not respond, then immediately dropped her chin to watch the ground, quickened her step and continued on her way.

Initially, I was irritated but then I smiled to myself and added her action it to the mental list I was keeping. I had experienced a similar exchange weeks earlier when I waved at an acquaintance and was clearly ignored. That episode prompted me to pay attention to how our community reacts to and interacts with one another. I made a conscious effort to remove my own negative feelings about the incidents and explore if I might be missing something greater…possibly a change in American manners that may be caused by more private lives, a melting pot of cultures and their traditions and our media use. All leaving me wondering “are we socially challenged?”

“We are social animals,” the Dalai Lama said on his Portland visit, “but those dogs always barking often remain lonely.” I was concerned about alienating ourselves from one another, so I turned to others for some perspective. In the end, my findings left me with thought provoking conclusions and inspiring anecdotes.

Place plays a part

America is a melting pot of nationalities and personalities. The woman who passed me on the sidewalk may have been shy, hearing-impaired or raised in a culture that did not greet others without knowing them. But the importance of giving a simple greeting cannot be disregarded. It is a powerful tool; it can make someone’s day, set a mood, begin a conversation, and show kind-heartedness. Regions in the U.S. have their own generalized social character – Southerners have a reputation of being incredibly hospitable; East Coasters more reserved and introverted – but did you know in our valley just a few miles makes the difference? Some people stated there is even a distinct difference between Silverton and Mount Angel: Silverton was perceived as “more open,” while Mount Angel was perceived as “more private but you can ask your neighbor for anything.”

Shelia Rosborough, a native of England and long-time Silvertonian made this comment about Americans and conversation, “(In England) what you do for a living does not define you. It is rude to ask people you have just met what they do.“ Here, a job defines who you are. “Rocket scientist, waitress, garbage man, doctor, movie star or plumber. I feel we end up making judgments on all of these people when we have only just met them.” In Europe, she added, the younger generation still has a great deal of respect for the older generation.

Luke Colleran, a 17-year-old foreign exchange student from Ireland observed, “People don’t really just smile or wave to strangers on the street here. There’s kind of a fear of the unknown. Generally we greet strangers more often and with more trust.”

Luke noted once he is talking with someone, “It feels more casual over here as far as conversations go with adults. People my age sometimes get awkwardly personal with questions and also shoot others down. There is a lot of negativity.” He didn’t have that difficult of a time adjusting to the cultural differences, he said, but he knows exchange students who did.

Media matters

Today, Americans are better connected electronically than ever and as a result seem to be drifting away from one another physically. Many feel uncomfortable with a hello hug but constantly update their Facebook “status.” According to a WSL/Strategic Retail study in 2012, Americans spent 26 hours a week online, just slightly more than a  day.

“In the states, I think social media replaces human contact a lot,” Luke said. “Back home (in Ireland) it is becoming bigger but people just use it as a way to meet others and stay connected.”

The anonymity of the Internet seems to have made its users less inhibited with first impressions. We have complete creative control of our profile, friends and communities with which we are associated.

“Remember when we used to get the Christmas letters from friends telling us how successful their kids were (during) the year? How we took vacations, had such a wonderful time? Social media reminds me of this; you can pretend to be who and what you want,” Rosborough said.

The lack of eye contact and body language of online chatter can lead us to being out of practice with basic listening skills when talking in person, thus appearing rude.

Luke said it initially bothered him when people would check social media when he was talking with them, “It made me feel ignored.”

Clearly clicking away so much time is not good for our American conversation manners.

Teach to greet

I wondered how changes in common adult social behavior were influencing our youth. While dropping off and picking up my daughter from school, I noticed many children walk with their heads down and avoid looking adults in the eye. Others refuse to return a simple “hello.” It appeared disrespectful, however, their avoidance may be because of shyness, apathy, stranger danger or because it is simply learned  – adults like the woman I met on the street were doing it too. Mount Angel bus driver Kristi Beneke Stokley said, “Every morning I greet each child with a ‘Good morning’ as they get on the bus and only a handful respond. Could be a number of reasons why, but I will keep on!”

I was heartened with her dedication to encourage friendly dialog among our kids. If we all make a similar simple effort, imagine the positive influence it would have on our  community.

Kids and kindness 

I turned up my good-deed radar for my research and witnessed selfless gestures done by young people over the course of weeks of attentive watching.

“Compassion means genuine loving kindness —the wish for others to be happy,” the Dalai Lama said. Here are a few examples of the random, thoughtful acts I observed: While checking out at a nursery, I was gifted with a beautiful floral arrangement from a player as a thank you to me for being her coach. My 6-year-old daughter received a special certificate of recognition for hard work at gymnastics and while accepting it a fellow student immediately put her arm around her and said, “Great job.” I saw students helping others at school, teenagers volunteering to assist coaches and teachers at the high school, and players dishing out encouraging words to others who were struggling. Then my high school-age daughter brought the Silverton High School Compliments page to my attention.  Created by a SHS student, it is a Facebook page where anyone can post a compliment about someone at SHS and remain anonymous. It’s a brilliant example of how we can use technology to spread kindness throughout our community.

Paying it forward

I attended two awards ceremonies that recognized adults for exhibiting altruistic behavior: one at Silverton Hospital and the other in Mount Angel’s Festhalle. The Silverton Hospital HEART awards honors its employees who go above and beyond their job and perform exceptional service. One recipient was a caregiver who had stayed with a patient into the middle of the night during a difficult time because the patient had no family present. Another was an employee who when off-duty, paid the grocery bill of the elderly woman in front of her. It brought to my memory the episode last year in Silverton when diners at The Gathering Spot continued to pay the checks of others over the course of the day.

Virtue First is an organization dedicated to “promoting virtue to re-build the character of America.” Its conference and awards ceremony was an uplifting gathering attended by parents, ministers, coaches, teachers, healthcare professionals, and businesses. Speakers presented ways in which they were positively impacting youth and adults. “Coach of the Year,” and “Teacher of the Year” awards were given to those who exemplify the organization’s mission. I was touched by the personal stories shared by people whose lives had been dramatically changed.

Carry on with compassion

My initial question, “Are we socially challenged?” was answered with, “We are socially evolving.” I discovered our methods of reaching out to one another – whether it’s a salutation or an act of unbridled generosity – continue to change but our reliance on one another for support remains constant. It is through intrinsic acts of kindness to one another that we express true compassion and create community.

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