Alone, together: A Stanford experience

Opinion by Neil Chaudhary
Oct. 16, 2014, 8:41 p.m.

This past weekend, the hosted a pop-up class called Design for Social Good for 30 students. The objective was to understand the experience of loneliness on campus and how to facilitate more meaningful connections.

We began by observing how people act when eating alone in public spaces — something we’ve all done at some point in our time here at Stanford. But what often goes unnoticed is how we act when we eat alone.

The class observed a surprisingly consistent set of behaviors people adhere to when eating alone. Take Tresidder Union, for example. An observer will notice that most people eating alone are doing so indoors rather than at the tables on the outside patio. Furthermore, most people eating alone will also have some sort of electronic device out; they will be on Facebook, reading the news, texting or doing something else to keep busy while eating their meal.

So, what is all this about? Why do we observe these things? What does this have to do with loneliness on campus?

It may seem like a trivial example to bring up eating alone, but it reveals the mechanisms by which we isolate ourselves. While it is true that some of people are in a hurry and prefer to eat alone at Tresidder, a large portion of the individuals we observed seemed to take their time to eat and had nowhere urgent to be.

What prevents these strangers from interacting and forming real relationships?

One explanation is that we fear being perceived as “alone” and are willing to construct barriers in the form of electronics to shelter ourselves from judgment.

If someone eating alone is on her phone, then it looks like she is busy, has important things to do and is indeed connected. And, eating indoors rather than outdoors limits exposure to the public view and passersby.

Studies show that if we overcome these technological barriers between strangers and initiate interaction, people overall become happier. One such study measured the interactions of two groups in a public commute on the train. The study revealed an important paradox: Although people often expect to feel more happy in the comfortable bubbles they construct for themselves, when social interaction is “forced” upon them they end up feeling more satisfied.

Interactions between strangers at Stanford would be more meaningful if we popped our personal bubbles now and then. But, students must first recognize what these bubbles look like and how they operate.

At Stanford, many of us often close ourselves off from each other by the sheer volume of classes or organizations we are involved in. Being constantly busy can be a form of being constantly alone. Our social space has little to no room for unstructured conversations without agendas or expectations.

While our professional networks have grown, our network of close friends and family we can depend upon has diminished. Tellingly, the incidence of loneliness among adults has doubled from 20 percent in the 1980s to 40 percent today.

But, it’s not just being busy. Many of us engross ourselves in technology. It is now common to find more than one individual on their phone during social gatherings and events. Our attention is divided between two different worlds – the virtual world of the text message and the real world of people.

And, having the option at any moment to escape into a virtual world where you control how you present yourself actually erodes real relationship-building skills.

Indeed, research indicates that many Americans now spend more time networking electronically through Facebook, Twitter and text messages, despite the fact that such a medium lacks real-time visual cues and physical contact and can even lead to reduced perceptiveness to body language.

Real, personal interactions with strangers on campus can be an important source of social cohesion and community. In fact, one study shows that interactions with strangers (people to whom we have “weak ties”) correlates just as much to levels of self-reported happiness as do our interactions with our close friends and families (or, our “strong ties”). If we want to promote social interaction and community on campus, we have to be more willing to make spaces like Tressider conducive to interactions between strangers.

And, one crucially important way to do so is by changing our habits: slowing down from our daily routines, getting off our phones and being courageous enough to start a conversation with a stranger. Today, the eating-alone scene at Tresidder presents itself as a room full of atomized individuals. And, sometimes it is comfortable to be alone. But it becomes a self-made prison when we do it all the time.

The one moment of discomfort and awkwardness when initiating a bond with a stranger is worth the fulfillment and satisfaction at the end.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’

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