Cocktail party old geezers

And loneliness in the “connected” modern world

Years ago, when I lived in a remote town in the south of South America, there used to be an old man who, for years, maybe decades, appeared in all vernissages, openings, receptions, cocktail parties — and basically any artistic or social event in town that offered free drinks. In some cases, even in private events (no one knows how he found out about them). But, mostly, he liked vernissages in art galleries. It is not clear if this was because of his greater interest in the visual arts than other arts, or because in those events there was usually more free booze, or, more likely, perhaps it was a healthy mixture of both. Eventually, he became so well known in such circles, that if he didn’t appear at a particular opening, it was said to bring bad luck. It meant: “This exhibition, show, book etc will fail.”

Now, living in another town in the middle of nowhere in Europe, I realize that there is an old lady that is also always present at all or most local cultural events. I don’t know if the same superstition applies to her.

Perhaps she, like that old man years ago, doesn’t have a family and feels lonely, and going to these events is a way to have some sort of social life. I don’t really know. But it got me thinking about loneliness in general.

There are studies showing that feelings of loneliness and isolation have increased immensely in the last years, and in particular since the appearance of social media and smartphones. It is as if, the more connected we are through our apps, the less connection we feel to those around us.

I was watching a movie from the early 1990s the other day, and there was a scene in which a small group of people, who clearly didn’t know each other well, were awkwardly sitting together at a table during a party. They remained silent for a while, looking at each other or at the walls, and then, almost simultaneously, they all reached for their pockets — I was expecting them to take out their smartphones, but this was an early 1990s film, so each just took out a pack of cigarettes and started smoking. Yes, you could do that indoors in the early 1990s too.

Today, of course, our smartphones make it easier for us to get lost in our own private universe and avoid the unpleasantness or awkwardness of meeting and talking with strange people “in the flesh”. Even office work has become remote in many cases, with “Zoom meetings” and similar stuff.

Bowling alone” was a seminal essay written in 1995 by Robert Putnam, later expanded into a book. There he argued that, at least in the United States, traditional forms of social interaction such as clubs, churches, bowling leagues, etc were slowly disappearing, and people increasingly spent more time alone.

That discovery may have been a novelty in 1995, but today, and especially after Covid, it is undeniable that we live times of complete social atomization. Even inside families, sometimes there is little connection and family members spend more time looking at their phones than at each other.

Extended families living in the same household are a thing of the past. In the United States, the percentage of people living alone has increased from 6% in the 1960s to 15% in 2022. In Northern European countries such as Sweden, the number of people living alone correspond to 17.8% of the people, or 39.2% percent of all households.

The numbers keep growing every year.

Sometimes, some of these people die and it can takes days, weeks or months until they are found. In one particularly sad case, a dead man was found in his flat in Stockholm only three years after his passing — and during all this time he was still receiving welfare deposits on his bank account, every month.

It’s not just old people without families who feel lonely — apparently most teenagers and young people do, too. Depression and suicide are on the rise in most of the western world — and not only. Asia is lonely too.

The problem got so bad that the UK instituted a “Ministry of Loneliness.” And yet, knowing how government works — seeing the examples of the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Health — it is very likely that they will make the problem even worse.

But there is a solution at hand: the Canadian government’s euthanasia program already allows for anyone older than 18 years of age to receive “Medical Assistance in Dying” (MAID), and there’s no need to have an incurable disease, but just “psychological suffering”. Perhaps the MAID program can merge with the Ministry of Loneliness, and governments worldwide will get rid of the problem of lonely people, once and for all.

3 comments on “Cocktail party old geezers”

  1. Billy Thistle says:

    My experience of encountering a solitary person who shows up at all kinds of social events is perhaps opposite to yours. I’m the solitary one and they’re the gregarious extrovert who, tho alone by character, knows everybody casually. I call this character the mayor or pope of that scene or locality. Their unstated job is to welcome, provide a bit of social bonhomie. After he’s greeted you, you feel less lonely. He raises possibilities for additional social intercourse.

    I have to mention one of these characters in particular, the late, lamented Tom Vezzetti, actual mayor of Hoboken from 85-88. NYC’s Daily News called him America’s wackiest mayor. He was an anti-gentrification reformer who defeated a long time corrupt incumbent. An old school politician he’d talk to anybody and everybody. I first noticed him on the bus talking loudly to all us passengers in a stream of consciousness about his political concerns. He was essentially blogging in public. At first I thought he was a nut but as I listened I became intrigued. Later he ran for office and won because the locals were against the flood of yuppie newcomers whose greater incomes enabled realtors to raise everyone’s rents. His slogan was “always a pleasure.”

    I like the 3 paintings of loneliness. The first one I don’t recognize. He seems haunted by a ghost, a past lost love. I can relate.

    Bowling Alone seems like one of those tacked on titles. Bowling is a solitary pursuit, not a team sport, not facing an opponent. But as a pastime it is social, tho not as interactive as say curling.

    > the more connected we are through our apps, the less connection we feel to those around us.

    I don’t have a smartphone but most do and most seem to be on them even when in public. I guess your point might be, especially when they’re in public because of the instrument’s insulation factor – like headphones used to be, a social buffering device.

    1. Tom says:

      I should have put the titles. The first painting is “The Absinthe Drinker” by Czech painter Viktor Oliva. I suppose the green woman is an absinthe vision… The other ones, more famous, are “Absinthe” by Degas and “Automat” by Hopper.
      Yes, the insulation thing is part of it too, but I meant more the long-terms effects of this whole social media and phone thing. They could be affecting our mood, social relations and cognition in other ways too.

  2. Anne C says:

    Very poignant. And I loved the inclusion of the paintings at the end – two of them were already familiar to me, but, after reading this, I’ll always look at them differently.

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