When the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks meet at the Super Bowl Feb. 5, they will treat Americans to more than just the nation's most famous football game. They will also be providing a midwinter reason for friends and families to get together. Gathered around ever-larger TV screens with plentiful snacks, viewers will enjoy an intangible commodity that appears to be diminishing: sociability.
A new study finds that visiting friends has been declining for the past 30 years, while visiting relatives has been declining for 20 years.
"If we could compare ourselves to similar people 30 or 40 years ago, we would see a big difference," says Henry Saffer, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York. "That is a negative aspect of our social relations today."
Analyzing data from the General Social Survey, funded by the National Science Foundation, he tracked social interaction between 1972 and 2002. The survey defines social interaction as visiting friends or family in homes or other locations.
Mr. Saffer traces much of the decline to three factors: Americans are generally becoming better educated; they work longer hours; and the nation is more urban than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Rural people, he explains, "tend to have more social interaction, out of necessity."
The data reveal other patterns as well. Older people have less social interaction, while single men typically socialize more. And blacks are more likely than others to visit relatives and neighborhood friends.
Marriage brings changes, too. People who are married are likely to build their social lives around their spouse and spend less time with relatives and friends. Having children at home also changes social dynamics. These families tend to reduce their visits with friends but increase visits with grandparents.
But perhaps the greatest shifts in social patterns occur in the workplace. "People spend more time at work and have more friendships and interactions there than they would have had in the past," Saffer says. "To some extent it replaces other kinds of friendships that people would have had outside of work."
Just how dramatically things have changed becomes apparent in the diaries my great-grandfather kept from 1879 to 1933. In his small Midwestern town, Sunday afternoon was a popular time to call on friends, neighbors, and relatives.
"Have been visiting with Mr. Tuttle's people all day," he wrote in 1897. In 1910 he noted, "Wife & I called on Mr. & Mrs. McMasters, the blacksmith."
Some visits involved congratulations for a marriage or a birth. Others conveyed condolences to the bereaved after a death. There were also visits to comfort the sick: An entry in 1883 stated, "Called on Mr. Case in P.M. He is quite low."
Even visits to his father-in-law rated a line. "Wife & I went over to Mr. Courtney's a little while," he commented in 1889.
Other times, friends and relatives came to their house. In 1899 he wrote, "Mrs. Stover called on my wife in P.M. & Mrs. Wesson called in the eve."
Decade after decade, he recorded these visits. In the process, he preserved a portrait of a bygone period of social history, with its solicitous, caring approach to neighborliness and friendship.
Explaining the importance of this custom, an etiquette book in 1866 stated, "Such visits are necessary, in order to maintain good feelings between members of society."
No one can claim that 21st-century Americans are less caring or less interested in maintaining "good feelings between members of society." Our lives simply take different forms. We spend less time at home. Even when we're there, we're not always ready to welcome guests. We fret that the house isn't picked up, the refrigerator isn't stocked, and there's no time to cook or clean.
And who can say that electronic communications don't serve as a valid substitute? From voice mail and e-mail to instant messaging and text messaging, we're never out of touch. Perhaps it's a trade-off - fewer personal contacts but more high-tech connections.
Still, something has been lost. Social interaction is believed to affect both physical and mental health, Saffer notes. Nothing can take the place of gathering around a table or a TV set with family or friends, sharing food and conversation. For those anticipating the pleasure of face-to-face connections at Super Bowl parties, the recipe for the day is simple: Please pass the chips - and cherish the friendships.