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Village People and Family Ties: Both Need Careful Cultivation

May 25, 2022 11:28AM ● By DR. RANDALL NIEHOFF

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.   —Attributed to Albert Einstein 


Ancient Greeks called those who chose to live privately, outside the web of social interactions, idiotes. The term had nothing to do with a person’s intelligence but rather a self-centered aloofness. Einstein feared such a numbing down of empathetic compassion and an increasing unwillingness to cooperate.  

Like him, many of us yearn for the opposite: a growing sense of familiarity and the ability to get along. The word family comes from an even more ancient Sanskrit word that means dwelling place—the shared space that makes all inhabitants, whether relatives or friends, a household.   

I have a married friend, who with a twinkle in his eye, posted a sign next to their front door with the boldly painted message: “Friends always welcome—relatives by appointment.”  Obviously, friendships are begun by free choice but families come prepackaged via birth or marriage. Both need careful cultivation if they are to grow and flourish, and so it is with our community and civilization. 

The goal is to learn how to treat friends like family, and family like friends. Two necessary tactics for success are: (1) sharing space; and (2) sharing time.  

 Regarding shared space, we who live on the Gulf Coast have some advantages: (a) we are lured outside together by fair weather, a vibrant natural environment, and a variety of healthy activities to pursue; (b) our perspective is framed by a shoreline, reinforcing our bond as common tenants of a limited land that shares a border with creaturely neighbors who live in the sea; and (c) as a destination for visitors, vacationers, and retirees, we are favored with a civic orientation toward hospitality.  

With regard to shared time, we face the same challenges all societies do—especially those influenced by modern technology. While citizens in developed countries have more leisure time than ever before, social scientists observe that preoccupation with technological gadgets continues to take up more of that free time. Meanwhile, participation in community organizations is rapidly decreasing. 

For example, a recent study from the University of Kansas found that it takes about 50 hours of socializing to transition from an acquaintance to a casual friend, then an additional 40 hours to become a real friend, and a total of 200 hours to become a close friend. 

Even when folks spend time together in person, many people experience the compulsive need to check their phones, ignoring their friends and family. Using a smartphone during face-to-face interactions has been termed phone snubbing or phubbing. While it is rude and can seriously dampen the satisfaction of friendship, it may also have more to do with the phubber’s personality than with lack of interest in the conversation. In a 2021 study of young adults, the authors found that depressed and socially anxious people are more likely to phub their friends, finding online communication less uncomfortable than in-person communication.   

So, in the face of all the obstacles to human interaction that have been invented and all the psychological habits that seem to offer comfort and safety, what can be said? Here are two comments from wise and caring “interactors.”  

From Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood): “Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.”   

And for the big picture regarding the future of the human race, from Mother Teresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 


Ran Niehoff has been blessed with family and friends on and around Sanibel since 1991.