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The Front Porch and Civility

July 7, 2010

Now that summer is in full swing (even in Seattle, yay!), it seems fitting to talk about a classic icon of summer recreation — the front porch.

Back in May, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by WGAU’s (1340 AM Atlanta) radio host Barbara Dooley(to hear the full interview, click here). The topic at the time was bullying, its cause/effects in schools.  Now Barbara is a wonderful southern gal…I could listen to her talk all day!  Along with the normal stuff about bullies, why they do it, what can parents do, Barbara made a statement that I thought was really interesting.

Barbara made the comment that she believed that much of the decline of civility in our society happened about the same time as we abandoned the front porch for the back deck.  Hmm…very provocative observation, but I think she may have  point.

Think about it: when we spent more time “in front,” we saw our neighbors more.  We had the opportunity to chat, to get to know them.  How many of us actually KNOW our neighbors much anymore? Our kids were supervised by the entire block as they rode their bikes, skateboarded or just “hung out.” You knew within minutes when someone’s kid had gotten in trouble or who was responsible for toilet-papering or egging Mr. Johannson’s yard.  Our kids probably felt safer, too, just being “around the neighborhood,” because there was always someone watching.

Then, we moved to the rear of the house. Our focus became more on “us.”  We didn’t let our kids out in the street anymore — who was there to watch them?  It’s safer to have them at home, yes, even if that means having them sit around the TV or playing XBox or Wii.  At least they are where we can keep an eye on them.

We may “entertain” with the odd backyard barbecue and that, from the haven our decks have become. But we don’t interact on a continual and casual basis with the people on our street. If we happen to see them as they drive by to soccer practice or ballet, we wave. But do we know what’s going on with them? Do we ever really chat anymore? No, we reserve that activity for our social media sites where we collect dozens (or even hundreds) of friends, — many of them we’ll never even meet. You don’t really have a conversation with them…you send 140 character sound bites into the ether.

So the effort becomes artificial — we have to try to invent reasons for the neighborhood to come together. A block party, a Halloween parade, maybe a “beautify the park” project.  Generally, turnout is low because people have gotten so used to doing their own thing, why make the effort to get to know people you have nothing in common with other than a similar address?

But there IS a point.  Not to be doom-and-gloom, but let’s look at an extreme example. What if a natural disaster took place in your town?  Who would you look to for help, support, and connection in time of need if you were cut off from all external resources? Those closest to you.  Your “community.” We saw this a few years ago when our area was crippled by 18+ inches of snow that wouldn’t let up and wouldn’t go away.  Some of our neighbors were stranded in their homes, literally, unable to get their cars out of steep driveways and off slippery hillsides. People made “milk runs” for each other when someone on the street decided to brave it and venture to the local supermarket.  Even 9/11 brought an increased sense of “we’re in this together,” as people tried to help each other out.

Sadly, it seems these bursts of community spirit are temporary.  Crisis over, life goes back to normal, and we unfurl the tablecloths, light up the ‘cue, and go back to staring out at our backyards. Our fences don’t require us to make conversation or connect in any way, and Facebook will always be there when we need a “friend.”

Barbara, I think you may be right in many ways.  The front porch shouldn’t be just a piece of Americana to be talked about fondly as part of the “olden days.”  So, too, our civility and connectedness with others probably needs a rebirth — or at least a jump-start. If we can’t add a porch to our home, we can at least take a step in bringing back some of that feeling of community. I challenge you all to think of one thing you can do today to step out of your comfort zone and reconnect with those around you.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2010 8:33 am

    I love this piece. As a person who lives in a house with a front porch on a corner behind a church and across from a school, I TOTALLY agree with the front porch theory of connectivity.

    Everything you say in this piece is so basic, so true and so important.

    Community is key but getting harder to build and sustain. I actually feel like people are almost suspect when you reach out. Jaded a bit. But hopefully it won’t discourage people who still understand it’s importance.

    Lack of connectedness leads to lack of empathy…and that’s the challenge for everyone working in the bullying prevention field. How to tap into empathy and engage parents, schools and kids. How do we engage more people and make it everyone’s problem to fix. In this age of everyone protecting their territory, it’s challenging to convince others that protecting kids’ emotional and physical well being is everyone’s territory.

    We need a HUGE front porch. Maybe it comes in the form of Twitter or Facebook but whatever it is, it’s a good idea to keep talking, keep listening, keep caring.

    I’m going to share this with my colleagues and friends and I invite you to go to http://tangledball.blogspot.com and sit on my front porch and share your thoughts.

  2. Corinne Gregory permalink*
    July 8, 2010 8:37 am

    Susan,

    Thanks for your comments!

    We actually are trying to build that “huge front porch” through both our FB presence and Twitter for now, and later through the SocialSmarts website when that feature is fully functional. See the links above for Twitter and FB…or you can just hop over to http://www.facebook.com/socialsmarts if it’s easier!

    Glad to see there are so many like-minded invididuals out there! We have a chance to re-civilize our communities yet!

  3. Tranquil1 permalink
    July 8, 2010 8:48 am

    I am chewing on this piece.

    I have often thought how “cold” people where I live now can be. I jokingly describe the place I grew up in as having a “Warm climate, warm hearts”. But I am wistful for those comforts.

    There is a superficial approach to the way people up here connect. And in my school, for example, they ask families to address teachers by their first names as a way to project a closeness that really isn’t there. Often, it feels awkward to greet a person by their first name in a formal setting when you’ve been taught to address others as Mr., Mrs. or Ms. until told otherwise.

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