Chit Chat: A Human Need

An advertisement for a social event in Headington, UK. "Warm Space".

February 23, 2023

I’m sitting in a Costa coffee in Headington, a small little town close to Oxford in the UK. Over and over I am struck by the fact that people talk so much to each other here. People are on the street, eating, drinking, and traveling in close proximity to each other. It is still before noon and I have already had several older women come up to me and say “hi” and comment on the chilly weather.

This is what I remember.

In 2007 I gave birth to my first child here in Headington. She was a premie. We were helped, assisted, and checked up on by a whole slew of people I didn’t even know. Home health visitors and lactation consultants simply showed up because I had given birth to a premie. The hospital, government, or NHS kept track of who might be in need of support and sent them to me. (This kind of government monitoring would make many Americans nervous.) Older women who were neighbors would knock on my door. My yoga teacher, though she had never been to my house, simply popped in one day. Visiting someone’s home after birth was seen as normal.

When my baby was older, I was not at a loss for social events. Every day of the week one church or another had periods of time where tea and biscuits were offered or when there were playgroups for tots.

Now, fifteen years later, I am reflecting on the differences between this culture and American culture. In the past fifteen years I lived in Maryland twice, Colorado, Alabama, and Tokyo. Over the years I have tried to brainstorm how I could cultivate this kind of culture in the US. (I’ve also written about these issues here and here.)

In 2019 moved to Maryland just outside of DC three weeks after giving birth. I called or checked the website of every single church within a twenty-mile radius of my house. I then expanded the radius. I could not find a single church with weekday activities or social events of any kind. I went to the mall just to see people. (Not a bad thing. Malls are the modern-day version of the ancient market…) I used to ask Starbucks baristas, “How are you today?” I’d wait for an answer. Based on the looks I got, you would think that question was a violation of their privacy. They would look at me suspiciously. Mostly they wouldn’t respond. In Maryland people don’t wait for responses for those kinds of questions.

In Alabama, New Mexico, and Colorado, people are much more friendly, to be sure. However these places have driving cultures. Being on the street can be prohibitively dangerous, especially with kids.

Prattville, Alabama doesn’t have sidewalks. Albuquerque, New Mexico has sidewalks, but only homeless people and, in some areas, prostitutes are out on the streets, for the most part. (Seasoned prostitutes wear tennis shoes and can walk five to ten miles a day on the streets. Please pray for people in this desperate situation.) In Colorado Springs, CO, people just stay in their cars. In all of these cities, public transportation is non-existent, unreliable, or dangerous, at least for families. As a result, seeing people face to face and having basic chit chat is difficult.

What is the problem? Is American distrust of other people and of government the root cause of the differences in community between the US and the UK? In the US there is no registry of people going through certain life events. Looking out for people is seen as a private voluntary affair. The problem is there aren’t nearly enough people taking on this important job. (Really, it should be everyone’s job…)

Or is it simply an issue of structure? Does the car simply change human behavior in ways that are difficult to overcome? With the car, cities are spread out. With less density there are simply less interactions. If you want to go to church, you drive to church. Then, if you want to go buy groceries, you drive to a completely separate place. There are so many churches and grocery stores that any church grocery store combination is acceptable. Simply popping into the local church for five minutes before walking to the grocery store right next door where you will see your neighbors is less likely. There will be less tendency for people to bump into each other repeatedly. Every activity is isolated, intentional, and far apart. Daily patterns of life are not shared to any large extent.

Our country has so many strengths, strengths many other countries do not have. (I realize my experiences in the UK were very limited.) There are valid reasons for our distrust of government, even if these fears are often exaggerated. Indeed, I even see there are many benefits of car culture. For one thing, driving time in the car often feels like protected “family” time where you can talk to your spouse or kids without dealing with other people. I also love strapping my toddler down and not having to worry about them falling onto the subway tracks. Driving feels safer with small children.

Still, the US can be a profoundly lonely place. Something has been lost. How can we intentionally go about addressing some of these problems? How can we build and sustain local community?

If you have read this far, share your thoughts!

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