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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Making Friends, A Matter of Where You Live?

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 4th 2009

 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

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Insight - MudExplorer - Jun 6th 2009

    It was neat to see your article on this subject.  I have suffered from both severe depression and social anxiety.  I live in a large suburban area around a large east coast city.  When I got the chance to do on the road sales, I took a shot believing that maybe things were better elseware. (I am always working on lessening the social anxiety). I have been in most states in the US and was greeted with respect and friendliness more often than my home state.  I do not want to generalize because I am sure their are dispicable people everywhere in the world.  It just was such a relief to meet people with manners and care for fellow citizens as well as strangers coming into many of the towns I visited.  This did not erase my depression or social anxiety but it was definitely a positive difference to where I grew up.  I was able to leave my apartments, houses and rentals much easier than ever before.  Unfortunately a rough wave of my physical and mental dissorders lashed back and suddenly I found myself back in my home town on the east coast.  I would take walks in the morning and when I saw people tending to their gardens or playing with their children. I made a point of saying hello or giving compliment and was rejected immediately. I am not sure why. I didn't have that big of a base to make a true judgement on if it is just a more reserved area or if it is due to the changes with trust in the modern society. Anyway I would like to thank you again for your article and hope to see that this opinion may further affect studies on the behaviors in society and mental health issues.

    Brunch - Paula - May 8th 2009

    So... In other words, your having a snack! Something inbetween meals that is not going to fill you up and ruin your dinner?

     By the way, Sorry Allan, Brad told me afterwoods what it meant but... He said that it was something you ate in-between Breakfast & Lunch. So Yeah... He was right! Why didn't you just say you was having a snack? Thats what us Brits say!

    Brunch? - Paula - May 7th 2009

    Allan, forgive me for asking but... What is Brunch? Here in the UK I have never heard of brunch! Is it some kind of food?

    Editor's Note: "Brunch" is a sort of late breakfast that has lunch-like options present as well as purely breakfast foods. I believe the word was created by merging together "breakfast" and "lunch" to create "brunch". 

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