Surely, loneliness is a problem. A psychiatrist friend once told me that he believed it to be the greatest difficulty his patients had.
If he meant—as I assume he did—that most people, especially in the inchoate social world of New York, feel disconnected and detached, I agree. In a place where social anomie is the order of the day, many, if not all people feel like outsiders.
It is difficult to understand anyone’s loneliness without knowing about the surrounding community, his family structure, his work relationships and his membership—or not-- in religious congregations.
These will tell us whether or not he has always felt like an outsider, or whether his loneliness was produced by a community where everyone lives in splendid isolation. If everyone is striving for independence and autonomy, loneliness is probably endemic.
In a world where everyone is constantly on the move, many people can only form loose social attachments, the better to protect themselves from the inevitable uprooting. When they move to new places, they will discover that each place has its own rules, its own game, and its own players. Even if they possess good social skills, they will never really know the players in a new place.
In many ways, a larger more diverse community will be less welcoming. In a small community, everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows the rules. When a newcomer arrives, people make an effort to be neighborly and to strike up cordial, if not excessively intimate relationships. Instead of worrying about the stranger in their midst they try to bring him into their social circles.
In a large cosmopolitan metropolis, people are less likely to reach out, less likely to be welcoming. There are so many unfamiliar faces and so many strangers that it is impractical to draw them into your society. Few people know where the new people came from or where they are going. Not opening up to each and every new person you encounter is an effective form of social self-defense.
And besides, there are so many different social circles that it is nearly impossible to know which one to join. Thus, pervasive and seemingly incurable anomie becomes the order of the day.
Allow these remarks to stand as something of a caveat or a preamble to some comments on a New York Magazine article on loneliness. Considering how much of a problem it is, social psychologists have been addressing it. They seem to believe that they need to choose between two explanations: people are lonely because they lack the requisite social skills or they are lonely because they cannot use their skills in social situations, thus, that they choke under stress.
Keep in mind that you can have perfectly adequate social skills in one community and find that they label you an outsider in another. Social skills are localized; they are not universal. They are one of the most important means through which people are recognized or not as members of a community.
Melissa Dahl explains:
And because of this new evidence of the serious ramifications of loneliness, some researchers are investigating what it is, exactly, that makes lonely people stay lonely. In particular, could some behavior be at the root of their isolation? One long-held theory has been that people become socially isolated because of their poor social skills — and, presumably, as they spend more time alone, the few skills they do have start to erode from lack of use. But new research suggests that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the socially isolated. Lonely people do understand social skills, and often outperform the non-lonely when asked to demonstrate that understanding. It’s just that when they’re in situations when they need those skills the most, they choke.
It feels like a distinction without a difference. Either you have social skills or you do not. If you fail to use them properly, you might console yourself by saying that you understand them, but effectively it’s merely a consolation prize. If you are good in rehearsal but bad at performance, it might be that you have not rehearsed enough. Your ability to understand the performance is no substitute for performing.
One ought to recognize, because the psychologists do not seem to, that social skills are many and varied. They range from table manners to everyday etiquette to dress codes to conversational gestures. They also include tone of voice, accent, word usage and so on. In today’s America, remarks that are strictly forbidden in some circles are witticisms in others.
Most social skills are practiced automatically. You do not spend any time thinking about how to use a fork or a spoon. You do not riddle your mind with doubts about whether you are using the one or the other correctly. You speak naturally and freely, without having thought through what you were going to say in advance. You might even have developed the habit of automatically writing thank you notes and returning all messages promptly.
If we say that an individual has a good understanding of social skills we should know that he has inferior skills. It’s like saying that you know the dictionary definition of a word but have trouble using it correctly in sentences. If you don't know how to use a word in multiple sentences you do not understand the word.
We are not necessarily talking about a psychological defect, an anxiety disorder. If everyone is using one set of table manners and those manners were not the ones you learned growing up, you will likely think before you pickup the knife or the fork. You will need to hesitate while others will not have to do so. If you become more self-conscious about your gestures you will, even if you do it correctly, be slightly off kilter, in slight disharmony with the rest of the crowd. It’s like a chamber music group where one musician is consistently off by a note.
People who feel like outsiders will normally develop an acute awareness of how others are behaving. They will study gestures in order to learn the rules. They will be more likely to mimic the gestures they see, the better to be part of the crowd. If they are insecure about their command of the current social skills, they will also be reading other people to see whether they are doing it rightly or wrongly.
In Dahl’s words:
Past studies have suggested, for example, that the lonelier people are, the better they are at accurately reading facial expressions and decoding tone of voice. As the theory goes, lonely people may be paying closer attention to emotional cues precisely because of their ache to belong somewhere and form interpersonal connections, which results in technically superior social skills.
When Dahl talks about “technically superior” social skills, she is suggesting, by my reading, that outsiders are more likely to need to study the social skills of others. For those who belong to the group skills come more naturally and do not require reflection or analysis.
It’s almost inevitable, but an outsider might also be trying too hard. He might be hyperfocused or terrified of making a mistake. Since his status within the group takes time to be established, he will feel that his is precarious. He will believe that all eyes are on him and this might cause him to choke. If it makes him think before he acts, it almost certainly will.
In Dahl’s words:
But like a baseball pitcher with a mean case of the yips or a nervous test-taker sitting down for an exam, being hyperfocused on not screwing up can lead to over-thinking and second-guessing, which, of course, can end up causing the very screwup the person was so bent on avoiding.
Of course, psychologists have techniques for reducing the performance anxiety. Dahl reports them:
It’s largely a matter of reducing that performance anxiety, in other words, and Knowles and her colleagues did manage to find one way to do this for their lonely study participants, though, admittedly, it is maybe not exactly applicable outside of a lab. The researchers gave their volunteers an energy-drink-like beverage and told them that any jitters they felt were owing to the caffeine they’d just consumed. (In actuality, the beverage contained no caffeine, but no matter — the study participants believed that it did.) They then did the emotion-reading test, just like in the first experiment. Compared to scores from that first experiment, there was no discernible difference in scores for the non-lonely, but the researchers did see improvement among the lonely participants — even when the task had been framed as a social-skills test.
At the very least, this current research presents a fairly new way to think about lonely people. It’s not that they need to brush up on the basics of social skills — that they’ve likely already got down. Instead, lonely people may need to focus more on getting out of their own heads, so they can actually use the skills they’ve got to form friendships and begin to find a way out of their isolation.
Again, this is a distinction without a difference. People who are lonely certainly need to get out of their heads. Introspective psychotherapy is unlikely to be of very much help to them. They also need to get out in the world, to develop their skills in practice, but to understand that, at first, they will most likely get a lot of it wrong.