In suburban America we generally interact with our neighbors only at a surface level. Most interactions are limited to waving hi as we walk by or occasionally we stop for sidewalk chats. Sometimes we visit for longer at annual block parties.
In the book Ikigai, the authors share several conversations they had with Japanese people who live in small towns and villages noted for their longevity. The interviews almost universally mention the importance of easygoing but deliberate and frequent hangouts with neighbor friends.
Similarly, Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe speaks about the comradeship he felt as a soldier and its distinct absence when he got home. He’s spent the rest of his life deliberately making life decisions that will bring that sense of community back.
Years ago I moved with my wife and son to Uruguay. There, even though we were in a suburb to the capital city Montevideo, it felt like drop-in friendships formed naturally. Having a friend spontaneously show up at your door to chat, or planning an impromptu asado with neighbors was not uncommon. As cliché as it is to say about Latin American culture, the pace of life was slower and people seemed genuinely more connected because of it. I really miss it.
It’s not that this never happens here in suburbia, but it feels like when it does, it happens in spite of our culture instead of because of it. It reminds me of A Pattern Language (pdf). The book is about the impact that patterns used in architecture and community planning have on our lives. It feels like the patterns that we’ve built most American neighborhoods around, combined with our productivity culture, whether by accident or otherwise, are completely antithetical to fostering that easygoing hangout culture.
What a loss.
A few years ago at work I had a good group of co-workers who became friends. Most mornings we’d hang out just chatting for a half hour or on some days longer. I was lucky to have one co-worker, you know who you are if you’re reading this, who was great at fostering that type of environment as well as a boss who was very tolerant. (For what it’s worth, we were also a very productive team). At the time, I didn’t think much of it but I really miss it now. Especially since Covid and Zoom have essentially erased any potential for those types of hangouts.
In Concrete Cowboy, a movie based on the book Ghetto Cowboy about urban horse culture in Detroit, there are scenes of a group of people sitting around a fire talking. The feeling, at least in the movie, was that it wasn’t at all unusual to sit around at the end of the day, as the sun went down, enjoying each other’s company. Talking about the difficulties life brought each other, and observing how the world was changing brought a sense of place. Of belonging.
Yes, it’s just a movie, but we’ve all seen this type of easygoing hangout happening and we’ve all been part of them at times. The lamentable part is how they now feel exceptional to everyday life.
Online hangouts and the cozyweb are nice and have their a place for sure.
Formal get togethers and parties are also nice and have their place as well.
Neither are substitutes for the feeling of “tribe” though.