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Making Friends, A Matter of Where You Live?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

One of the results of my travels across the United States is that it has given me an opportunity to observe how people interact with me and with others. That has resulted in my doing some thinking of the problems of shyness, social anxiety, social avoidance and depression. Let me explain.

Many people have E. Mailed me at Mentalhelp.net about the fact that they feel socially isolated and depressed. Most of the E. Mailers identify themselves as young, recently out of college and somewhere between the ages of 18 and 40 years of age. They are both male and female and all are dismayed about their inability to make friends since finishing school.

One of the phenomena I have noticed is that there is a very great difference in social receptivity according to where a person lives. For example, meeting people and engaging in social conversation is easy in Colorado. People are friendly, relaxed and very receptive to even the most minor attempt at someone making a casual comment. This happens male to male, female to female and male to female, all regardless of age. Now, I am not going to generalize and say the everyone is friendly and outgoing. However, the likelihood of greeting someone with a bright "hello" and receiving an equally friendly response is greater there than in many of our metroplitan centers. In fact, I would say that the city of Denver is a lot less friendly than Boulder and its outlying suburbs. New York, Philadelphia and Boston are a lot less friendly than Denver.  In the West Coast, I would place Los Angeles with the less friendly place to be with San Francisco somewhat better than L.. Again, I am making vast generalizations and, therefore, there are lots of exceptions.

I was recently in New York City and waiting on a long line to get into a popular restaurant that serves brunch on Sunday. The people on the line were either talking to their own family or friends while others stood silently. What was missing was interaction between people who do not know one another but who could have engaged in some social chatter while waiting. In the city of Boulder this would not happen, as I have learned by experience. There, people begin chatting with one another, sometimes discovering that they have a lot in common and making the first steps towards friendships. Of course, it more often happens that the chatter and connection ends upon being seated.

So, I have started to ask myself how much of the social discomfort and social isolation experienced by many people is less a matter of psychological pathology and more a matter of where they live. Even for those who are shy, and there is evidence that shyness is at least in part inherited, how much easier it must be to end up feeling isolated and withdrawn as a result of the interaction between the nature of the place where they live and their natural tendency towards social avoidance.

Psychology has know for a long time that we human beings are equally subject to conditioning in the form of rewards and punishments as are dogs, mice and other living creatures. If some is shy and is faced with silence or a lack of response from another person when they have attempted a comment, it is likely that this will feel like aversive conditioning or punishment. This increases the likelihood that they will not attempt a greeting or ocmment the next time.

It seems as though crowded and impersonal places like our large urban areas are a lot less friendly than our less densely populated areas to the midwest and far west. What does this mean for those who are socially avoidant, shy and feeling bad about themselves?

If I am correct and, at least for some people, shyness and avoidance interacts with social distance between people as a result of where they live and leads to feelings of low self worth and low self esteem. Therefore:

1. The sense of isolation with resulting depression experienced by shy or avoidant people is not necessarily a result of someting being "wrong with them," but is an outgrowth of where they live.

2. People who are shy and avoidant can learn the social skills to help them feel more accepted and allow them to become socially interactive rather than isolated.

3. As a result of learning the necessary social skills, people will become members of groups, feel accepted and experience a significant decrease in depression.

I am not implying that all depression is the result of social isolation. I am stating that those who are socially isolated due to shyness and avoidance are most likely depressed as a result.

In the next blog I will discuss some strategies people can develop to help them overcome their shyness and social avoidance.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD

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