'Law and Order' Is On Tonight - How About a Rain Check?

ATTENTION disorders, increased violence, and promiscuous sexuality - these are just a few of the social ills that have been blamed on increased television viewing. While I admit to being disturbed by these, there's another side effect that people seldom study - the demise of old-fashioned hospitality.

These days, everyone seems ''committed'' to watching their favorite TV shows, and if there's a favorite show on every night of the week, then there's little time left for fostering old friendships and establishing new ones.

Recently, I ran into a couple that my husband and I had lost touch with over the years. I suggested that they come over for dinner that night. ''We haven't seen each other for ages,'' I pointed out. ''We've got a lot of catching up to do.''

Kelly shook her head and said, ''That sounds nice, but 'Law and Order' is on tonight, and Ted and I never miss a single episode. Can we have a rain check?'' I was astonished and a little hurt. But I was even more hurt by how the evening unfolded when our neighbors Lorna and Doug invited us over for dinner, along with Hong Bo, a Chinese exchange student who was staying with us temporarily. ''We'll have a good, all-American cookout,'' Doug promised.

Well, the food was great and so was the conversation - while it lasted. As Bill and Doug grilled steaks, our youngsters taught our Chinese visitor how to pitch horse shoes. We watched Hong Bo hesitantly taste her first bite of potato salad. We laughed as she emphatically declared that Lorna's chocolate Snickers cake was the best thing she'd ever eaten.

But immediately following the meal, we were all herded indoors where Doug plunked himself down into his recliner to watch television. Lorna, after loading the dishwasher, did the same. Their daughter sprawled at their feet, her eyes glued to the tube. Our attempts to make further conversation were acknowledged only by monosyllabic grunts.

Thanking them for the meal, we made a hasty departure so as not to interfere with their television viewing. But Bill and I were embarrassed. Hong Bo was confused. How could I explain to her something that I didn't completely understand myself? Our neighbors missed out on a marvelous opportunity to talk to a Chinese visitor about her views on politics, literature, and the humorous complexities of the English language.

If television-viewing is indeed serving as a substitute for social intercourse, is it any wonder that so many Americans complain about loneliness? Is it really so surprising when my couch-potato friend Jan complains that her teenage sons are ''distant'' and ''uncommunicative'' and that my husband's friend Larson, a boob- tube addict, was recently encouraged by his boss to take a course to improve his ''social graces''?

Certainly, most Americans still entertain. But for many, it's an obligatory duty. We throw dinner parties to ''pay back'' those who invited us to theirs. We host and attend office parties, company picnics, and the traditional family feasts. Even then relatives gravitate toward the television set as soon as the gorging is over.

What has happened to down-home hospitality and that wonderful camaraderie shared over an impromptu cup of coffee? Busy as I am, I miss the spur-of-the-moment visits of old friends bearing a gallon of ice cream and wanting to play a few hands of cards.

Apparently, those days are gone. With most women working outside the home, it's simply easier to eat take-out food and plop down in front of the TV.

There are two kinds of people in the world: the Doers and the Viewers. The Doers thrust themselves into life with enthusiasm. The Viewers have reduced life to a spectator sport. They don't even know what they're missing, and I'm sorry for them.

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