The US South is supposedly known for its hospitality and warmth. My husband and I haven’t found it to be that way. Maybe that’s due to our minority identities. Maybe it is due to our lack of resources. Maybe it is because of our personalities – perhaps we put people off without meaning to, because we have mannerisms that don’t fit in well with those of most US people. It is, I suppose, one of those things that aren’t easily explained. Probably each person who has crossed our path would have a different explanation for why we never clicked. I guess it’s “just one of those things.”
But this whole experience of being socially cut off for numerous reasons has made me think a lot about the way we Americans* interact with each other, form relationships, and define a friendship (*note: I don’t like using that term to refer only to people from the US because it erases people from other parts of the Americas, but in English it is pretty much my only option. So, please bear with me!). You see, I have always been an outgoing person. I am introverted, but I still love people! I was reprimanded as a child for hugging people too much. To this day I will chatter away at any captive audience: people in elevators, nurses in doctors’ offices, Lyft drivers, people in line… I am talkative and will generally open myself up easily. I have learned to filter how much personal information I share with people, but still. I talk a lot! My husband is from Brazil, a.k.a. Outgoing People Central! He is just like me in this regard.
Much to our disappointment, we’ve found people in the US to be far more reserved and inhibited. Oh sure, people will talk about the weather or pop culture. But it is difficult to get someone, including people that you’ve known for a while, to open up about their lives. It isn’t just us; other people we meet agree that it is possible to know someone for years and yet not ever discuss one’s feelings, sorrows, pasts, or other similarly personal topics. Hugging is offensive to many people here, and a kiss on the cheek is considered highly flirtatious. Crying with someone is an embarassment, only excusable if you’re drunk, and to be pointedly “forgotten” the day after. If someone asks, “how are you?” the only acceptable response is, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” The other person promptly confirms that their life is also free from any difficulties, and then one moves on to a drawn out discussion about the weather. To deviate from that script is to over share, to burden the other person, and to – you guessed it! – embarrass yourself and the other party. Such an outcome is to be avoided at all costs.
And to make plans? Any occasion must be put on the calender at least two weeks in advance. If it is something meaningful, such as a birthday or anniversary celebration, it must be set up a month in advance. Spontaneity is reserved for close relatives, and sometimes a very old and trusted friend. People always say, “Let’s keep in touch! Let’s get together sometime!” but they never do. If a friend moves away, that’s the last you’ll see of them. If you meet someone new in a public place, the best you can hope for is to add them on Facebook and then proceed to never speak again.
The sad truth is, I’m not the only American overwhelmed with loneliness. More and more Americans are feeling lonely and cut off. There is an epidemic of touch starvation, a phenomenom in which a person experiences skin to skin contact very rarely. This has numerous negative effects on said individual, including mental health problems and even heart disease! People who are rarely touched, and even more rarely touched with a purposeful, affectionate intent, feel lonelier, and suffer profoundly for it. Personally, I only regularly receive intentional affectionate touch from my husband, and once a week my therapist always gives me a hug. Before getting married, I was unimaginably touch deprived. I had become so accostumed to this that I either recoiled or cried when people touched me. You see, everyone needs to be touched a lot. One person giving you affection isn’t enough. Caring physical contact is a basic human necessity! Sadly, however, Americans have demonized touch. Doctors and other health practioners don’t touch their patients unless absolutely necessary, and even then will often apologize. Teachers aren’t supposed to hug their students. And hugs between colleagues are scandalous! Friends don’t touch, and no one can seem to articulate why. Many families never or only rarely show physical or even verbal affection.
Meanwhile, in many parts of Europe, in a lot of Arab cultures, and in most Latin American cultures, touch is ubiquitous. To not touch is insulting. People hug and kiss upon greeting and when parting, often multiple times. People will spontaneously hug, touch one’s arm, or throw an arm around their companion. People are more spontaneous when making plans to go out. They’re verbally affectionate, too! Case in point: I’ve known people here for years, people who used to be close to me. My friends here, whether I have known them for years or not, whether in person or online, have never told me that they love me. It simply doesn’t happen. And if I were to initiate such a demonstration of fraternal or sororal affection, the other person would find it awkward at best. Meanwhile, my friends abroad – excluding those from the UK, as it seems that they have the same problem there as we do here – show affection liberally. Besides the aforementioned physical touch, they also say “I love you” far more often, and it is normal for me to say the same. When people care, they show it. Caring isn’t shameful or weird. Love is beautiful, and meant to be expressed.
Back here stateside, we have a long way to go to stop starving each other of love and affection. (TRIGGER WARNING: suicide discussion between the asteriks!) **People literally kill themselves because they feel alone. Frankly, telling each other that people do, in fact, care, and expecting deeply depressed people to believe that, despite that no one is showing it, is ludicrous. The truth is, far too many of us either don’t care about each other, or else do care but find such feelings too embarrassing to mention and therefore never express our feelings.** If we want ourselves and others to stop suffering profoundly because we find feelings of love and friendship to be awkward or difficult to express, we must step out of our comfort zones.
To that end, I propose some changes! Don’t read bad or romantic intentions into simple hugs. If someone asks you, “What’s on your mind?” open up a bit. And if someone else looks down or sad, ask them the same thing. If someone looks lonely on a bus, ask them if the seat next to them is taken and try to strike up a conversation about the weather (or not – everybody talks about the weather!), their adorable shoes, or the book in their hand. They may not want to talk, and that’s their right. But try! Maybe they need a kind interaction. And when it comes to people you’ve known for a while, try to arrange to spend time together. Stop feeling like you need an excuse to be around each other. Go to a park or invite someone to your home, and avoid using an activity to intentionally distract yourselves from connecting in a meaningful way. People here feel the need to go to an occassion to be able to be together. God forbid a long silence or an unchecked emotion should occur! Try this: talk about your day. Talk about politics, religion, and football. Talk about food, and yoga, and books. Have an awkward silence. Get comfortable with truly connecting, not merely sharing space and frivilous conversation that does nothing to enrich either of you.
Touch someone on the arm. Say, “I’m a hugger, not a handshaker,” when saying hello and goodbye to friends and family. If they express that they’re not comfortable with that, you must respect that of course. But they might actually find it refreshing, and both of you will benefit. And when someone you know asks, “how are you?” tell them the honest truth. And when you ask them the same, and they say that they’re fine, ask, “Are you really? You know, I’m here for you if you want to talk!” Sure, it’s “weird” at first. But that makes it all the more important.
If the numbers of people experiencing the epedimics of depression, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and touch deprivation were instead numbers of people with influenza, malnutrition, diabetes, or any other physical illness, major health organizations and even world governments would be in tailspins. But because society hasn’t yet learned to take mental and emotional well-being as seriously as it does matters of physical survival, few people are aware that they’re not alone in feeling like nobody cares, in longing for a hug or kind word, and in wishing more people would have real, meaningful conversations. It’s time we changed this!