The Real Reason We Need Each Other

Our Very Identities Rely on Interpersonal Interaction



The rush to open the economy up again, even amid rising Covid-19 contagion, has been fueled, in part, by cries that humans are social animals and they need to be with each other. We assume that as a social species — as most primates are — that time around others is a more “natural” state than being alone, and therefore essential. But no one seems to know exactly why humans have this driving need to be in each other’s company.

The idea that just being part of a crowd is necessary for wellbeing doesn’t cut it. Lots of animals hang out in groups — picture herds of wildebeests or schools of fish — but their innate style of grouping evolved simply as an expedient strategy for protection. These species interact with each other a bit, but really, the idea is to be in the center of that herd or school to reduce one’s risk of being eaten by a hungry predator. Human sociality sometimes has that same herd effect, but most of the time when people gather our sociality is very interpersonal and interactive typified by one-on-one exchanges. For some, it’s a mating game; the urge to hit a bar or go to a gym can be more about hooking up than finding someone to talk to. For others it’s distraction or entertainment; eating out with friends is now a national pastime. Human inter-personal interaction is also often about making alliances and fostering cooperation; we are socially intelligent enough to manipulate others to our advantage. But there is another reason humans have a driving urge to be with other people — to find ourselves. Only by bouncing ourselves off others do we realize who we are, and without that constant reflection, humans are bereft because we don’t know our value or our place in life. We need others for clarification, confirmation, and reinforcement of our very identities.

I know this because I live alone. Ever since my daughter left for college four years ago, I have led a pretty solitary life. Not a sad lonely solitary life — there’s always something to do and even while staying inside all day every day because of the virus I am busy with this and that. In that sense, my current life is not so different from the one I had 6 months ago. As a writer, I am home alone all day anyway and at the end of the workday, I usually hang out with only myself and watch TV and knit. Sure, I have friends and talk with them by phone or zoom every few days. And there’s also email. But most of the time, I sail through life solo, making my own decisions and experiencing life all by myself.

I don’t mind all this aloneness, even in the quarantined extreme version, but I often don’t feel like myself at some level. I sometimes say out loud, “I’d just like someone to talk to at 5 p.m.,” as if this were the only thing missing by living alone, but lately I have come to realize that my moments of confusion about who I am are rooted in the fact that there is no one to laugh at my jokes, tell me I am right or wrong when some conflict happens, judge whether as idea of mine is brilliant or stupid, and there no one looking at me but a five-year-old cat. That last might seem superficial, but it’s weird to get a haircut and have no one notice or get new cloths and wear them with no comments from anyone. At this point, I have no idea if I look good or bad, if I am funny or not, or if I have a brain in my head.

I have come to realize that social interaction is not just about being with others, it’s also about confirming who we are. Humans provide each other with reactions and those reactions help form how we think of the world and ourselves. Of course, that necessary entwinement also has a dark side. Negative comments from others can be painful and destructive to the human ego, but those unsetting times are outweighed by the positive reinforcement that we exist because others see us.

Social interaction is a major mechanism through which we find our singular place on the plant. And by providing that service to each other, we humans create a network of interaction and attachment that is the safety net of human identity. We become ourselves as we align with various groups, ingest various belief systems to which others adhere, and have our behaviors judged by others. This process of socialization is apparently evolutionarily important; judging, reassuring, and mirroring are so common and so universal for all peoples that these actions be selectively adaptive.

Of course, living in a culture that glorifies the individual is counter to this entwinement of our identities. A culture that expects everyone to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” not depend financially on anyone, and encourages each of us to live “independently,” might not be the best blueprint for a happy life for primates so dependent of the gaze of others. The current epidemic of loneness in Western culture that has critically affected the mental and physical health of those on their own underscores the misfit between those constructed Western values and our evolutionary heritage.

You’d think that with such big brains humans could easily manage to construct themselves, but clearly, we need a little help from our friends to get there.




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We Desperately Need Culture Brokers to Fix This Country but Where Are They? Where Are the Anthropologists?

                                                         Margaret Mead in Samoa                                         

We are in the midst of any number of internal culture wars within the United States, and these conflicts are destroying us as a nation.

And yet, we have always been a culture of cultures. Since our founding, immigrants have contributed various perspectives and experiences, ethnicities have brought a panoply of beliefs and styles, distinct levels of socioeconomic status and educational experiences also separate people into other kinds of groups with various views. These differences used to be the gloriously complex fabric that made up America. But sadly, our current president has negatively amplified every possible difference that any two people might. He wants us to believe that stubborn, angry loyalty to some group is normal, righteous, and a reason to oppress others. And Mr.Trump hopes that enforcing a concept of “us” against “them” will win him another fours years. He also doesn’t care how much hate is spewed about in the process, or who gets hurt.

But it doesn’t have to be like this, and we need to get back to who we are. What is needed, I think, is culture brokers, that is, people trained to recognize, define, understand, and eventually sort out those differences so that people of all stripes can better respect each other and live in harmony.

I’m not talking about mediators here — the problem is too big — it encompasses the masses and you simply can’t get a room big enough for some sort of group therapy at this level. Instead, we need experts who have spent their lives figuring out what culture and identity is all about, people trained to listen and learn, and who take each culture as it is without judgment.

Those experts on culture are anthropologists, but where are they?

I admit to being an anthropologist myself, and I know it’s not a normal job. In my experience, most people have no idea what an anthropologist does or why it matters. More often than not, when I say I am an anthropologist a wave of confusion passes over the listener’s face, because, really, it sounds like such an old-fashioned occupation, like an alchemist. In the popular idea of an anthropologist, we all wear pith helmets and break into tombs to steal gold chalices, or we are on our way to some remote island where we plan to burrow into a previously unknown village like a cultural stowaway.

Also, we are on the fringe because there are so few of us and we are hard to find. Most of the time we hide out at universities trying to educate 18-year-olds about the importance of recognizing other ways of seeing the world. Although the anthropological approach is appreciated on most campuses, anthropology departments also tend to be small and not showcased by the administration because we don’t pull in big grants. But anthropologists were the first to suggest the idea that one culture, one way, one group of people is not better than another.

Anthropology as a discipline came to America in the late 1800s with the teachings of Franz Boas. Although trained in Germany as a physicist and geographer, Boas’s life was changed during an extended stay with the Inuit of Baffin Island. That experience set the stage for Boas’s then-radical perspective on race and culture that would become theoretical foundations of American anthropology. He eschewed the popular idea that cultures could be listed by sophistication with Western culture, of course, at the pinnacle. He also rebelled against the common belief that race was biologically real, and that traits then used to define race (which was often tied to a particular culture or country) were immutable. Instead, Boas showed with physical measurements of immigrants and their children that those so-called defining traits were easily changed when the environment changed. Boas also wrought a cultural revolution within America in the sense that he changed the basic Western belief system that “West is best.” He was educating the world that all cultures are sophisticated, complex, and interesting in their own right, and therefore of equal value, calling his perspective “cultural relativism.”

As a Professor at Columbia University, Boas infused his teaching with this concept. He was also adamant that it was critical to study other cultures so that we would have a record of the grand variability in human belief systems before those cultures were wiped out by Western contact. To that end, he trained and encouraged a long line of American graduate students and sent them off around the world. Some, like Margaret Mead, became the public voice of Boas, explaining to the popular audience in lectures and books that there were many other ways out there, and they all had equal value.

Cultural relativism was a major shift in how “others” were perceived, and it was the birth of political correctness in this country. That training is also alive and well in today’s anthropology curriculums. We anthropologists are devoted to the variety of human cultures; we study them, we account for them, and we revel in them. And yet, in a time when Western culture is again pitting one group against another, the anthropologists aren’t there to help us get out of this hole, or even to explain it.

Perhaps the anthropologists are in hiding. After all, these are scholars with a bent for foreign adventure, not political games. They are also academics, people who tend to be happiest sitting alone in a library or under a tree watching people in some far-flung place. They also tend to be loners, people comfortable standing back and watching. But this is not the time for objectivity. Western culture desperately needs some guidance, and it’s imperative that anthropologists get in there and help negotiate whatever it is that makes some people hate those who don’t look, act, or think exactly like them.

It’s time for anthropologists to do their job and make sure every culture, every group, every identity gets the respect it deserves.

We are one species connected by our evolutionary history if nothing else. Cultural and physical differences are not threats to anything: they are simply part and parcel of the broad range of our species. Underneath all those layers of cultural and physical variety lies a shared mind and body that identifies us as one big family, and with a little professional help from the culture brokers, we should be able to get along just fine.

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The Cultural Revolution of Eating Out

adult, camera, enjoyment

In the late 1970s, when I and my then-husband were graduate students, we had a special monthly ritual — we’d go to the local grocery store and buy two bear claws, those sugary almond-topped bakery delights. It felt like the greatest culinary treat in the world. We never went to restaurants nor picked up take-out food because we had no money for that, and because such an idea never occurred to us. Ever. We were people who made food at home and brought our lunch to school and never thought a thing about it. Neither did any of our friends because back then people didn’t eat out much, if at all.


But this year, when the Covid-19 restrictions reduced the availability of prepared food and closed sit-down restaurants, we all learned how this particular safety measure contributed dramatically to the economic downturn of the country. It also made the populace furious because eating out seems to have developed into a kind of Constitutional right. But it wasn’t always like this. In the past 30 years, the United States has experienced a cultural revolution about food, where it’s made and how we eat it, and that revolution has made the economy and many people’s psyches vulnerable. And that signals a major change in the belief system about food in this culture.

The new daily normal of regularly paying others to prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner starkly compares with life a generation ago when eating out was a special time, an expense not taken lightly. When I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I cannot remember a single time my middle-class family went out to eat, except on vacation where we stayed with relatives and only caught lunch at a Howard Johnsons (like today’s Applebees) on the route to and from our aunt’s house. My mother worked full time, which was unusual back then, but she came home and cooked for a family of six. Even if the smorgasbord of take-out food had existed back then, I am sure my mother, a product of the Great Depression, would never in her life have ordered out. She would have seen that as a foolish waste of money. And there weren’t so many prepared food options back then even if she had wanted to bring home a meal.


But now, according to the National Restaurant Association, the United States has around one million restaurants that employ about 16 million people. The website Upserve says 200 million Americans went to a sit-down restaurant in 2018. And overall, the restaurant business has been rising steadily. Up until the Covid-19 virus, the National Restaurant Association saw a 3–4% increase in restaurant eating and drinking every year. That increase amounts to 863 billion dollars that Americans spend annually on having someone else make their meals.


We do this not only at sit down places but also with carry-out, drive-through, delivery, now curbside delivery, and food trucks. Apparently, 60% of American households order food delivery or take out at least once a week. And this happens despite the high cost to consumers. Thirty-four percent of those take-out and delivery orders exceed $50 each. And these numbers don’t even include the common option of buying prepared food at the grocery store, which obviously should be classified as “take-out.”

Consumers are more than willing to spend their hard-earned money in this way, even with the viable, and more cost-effective option of buying groceries and cooking. Market Watch has pointed out that twenty years ago the average household spent 10% of its income on groceries and only 5.5% on eating out. Now that ratio has shifted to 7.2% on grocery store goods and 6% on eating out. And yet, cooking and eating at home has always been the much cheaper option — the price of grocery items has been systematically falling for years.


The driving forces that motivate those opting for prepared food over homemade, the National Restaurant Association says, is twofold — it’s the convenience of having someone else cook and the socialization that comes with dining with friends or in the company of a nameless crowd. The Association also explains that 63% of people in this country would rather buy an experience than a thing, and restaurant eating is considered an adventure and not just a meal. Take-out and delivery are convenient and a good option for a group that doesn’t feel like cooking, so there is socialization with that as well. It’s also true that prepared food is now part of normal life because more women have entered the workforce and eschewed the traditional role of the family cook. Men, it seems, have not opted to take on that role very often although some do. And single people work all day and have no energy to make something just for themselves, and so they go out or take out.


Since eating out costs so much more, there must be other factors beyond convenience and socialization that have altered the food landscape in America. It might be that people have more disposable income these days and so they eat out, but that can’t be true since people from all income brackets take advantage of food from some other kitchen. Perhaps they are enticed by the plethora of ethnic food that has sprouted up with our multicultural society. If you live in a city, which most Americans do these days, there is food from every culture on earth right around the corner, and that can be an enlightening as well as a tasty alternative than the usual home fare.

But the consequences of depending on this industry and pouring money into it has now reared its ugly head. As we’ve seen during the economic crash caused by the pandemic lockdown, the eating out industry has become a sort of one crop economy with much of the population dependent on the supply and another part of the population dependent on the income. With quarantine, our newly evolved habit has been curtailed, and when belief systems are frustrated, people feel denied and angry. In that sense, eating out has moved from an expensive privilege to a social norm. For those who don’t eat out much, the lack of restaurants means nothing but for others, it’s a personal disaster, a loss of their normal patterns, and they are more than upset and frustrated.


The food industry has expanded exponentially because Americans wanted it to, and now they feel that something essential to life has been taken away. But in fact, all the restrictions ask is that people go back to cooking at home like they used to not so long ago. Some are learning, to their great surprise, that it’s not only easy to make sourdough bread at home, it’s also possible to cook a chicken and some vegetables and sit down with family and enjoy it. Others are realizing how much they spend each year on prepared food and restaurants.


The restaurant business is, of course, hoping that this brief soiree into the home kitchen of the past will reverse itself as the restaurants open up, and they can probably rest easy with that expectation. Yes, belief system change and they often evolve into some other shape, but this one is probably here to stay for some time. Just look at all the people filling up the tables spread outside on the sidewalks and into the streets and see that new normal is so now so deeply held that people will risk their lives simply to have someone else do the grocery shopping and cooking.

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