When I was a kid, we were told humanity was at
the dawn of the “Atomic Age,” when nuclear power would
improve our lives in manifold ways. Few of us dreamed that the real
revolution would be based on the dance of ones and zeros rather
than neutrons and electrons.
The global village was built by the power of modern information
technology. We’re bombarded by multiple streams (or “windows”)
of information and disinformation from everywhere. We’re in
touch. Closer to home, pagers, cell phones, e-mail and voice mail
all have made it possible for us to stay in almost constant contact
with friends, colleagues and family members. AT&T long ago urged
us to “reach out and touch someone” through their telephone
lines; now it has become an easy matter to stay connected without
any physical lines at all. We’ve gone wireless.
But being “in touch” electronically is not the same
as face-to-face contact, which is what we usually mean by “being
together.” Increasingly, physical space is not where we’re
hanging out. Next time you’re at an airport or shopping at
the mall, check out the number of people walking around with cell
phones to their ears or wearing headphones. It’s hard to say
exactly where these folks “are.”
Unable to imagine a placeless place, we called it “cyberspace.”
Multitasking in several places at once, we’re increasingly
distracted. The number of near-collisions between people as they
walk around public spaces (are we headed for an epidemic of “aisle
rage?”) suggests they are not exactly in the same place. At
any given moment, our physical space is not necessarily the same
as our social space.
To what extent is this kind of social disconnection and loss of
focus entering the American home? The question of whether Americans
are eating dinner together has been the subject of media debate.
As we negotiate the tangle of our family lives and work obligations,
we have all eaten on the run, ordered out, grabbed a quick bite
from the refrigerator, and participated in serial eating at dinnertime
(which may or may not be the same as cereal eating at breakfast),
as different members of the family come and go on their own time.
Less obvious is the kind of “market segmentation” that
has redrawn the fault lines of the dinner table as our eating habits
have become more personally differentiated. Our food habits are
becoming increasingly individuated, as marketers encourage us to
think of our food preferences as personal “lifestyle choices”
rather than family matters.
We see ourselves as vegetarians, vegans, meat-eaters or devotees
of the Atkins diet. No one seems to be just eating any more. The
family cook is faced not with making one meal but a variety of different
meals, tailored to individual eating preferences. And, of course,
food companies have been more than willing to transform the old
TV dinner into a wide variety of expensive convenience foods, microwavable
foods and individualized meals that have transformed the dinner
table into a kind of cafeteria space.
To what extent is the experience of the “family meal”
affected by not eating common foods from common bowls? It’s
hard to know. But we do know there is no more basic symbolic statement
of belonging than eating together. And when you add the effects
of staggered dinner times and family meals in front of the television,
the atomization of the meal experience for many families becomes
clear. Being at the same table is no guarantee that we’re
“eating together.” One senses that something important
is at stake.
These trends are part of an increasing atomization of social life
shaped by changes in both scheduling practices and communication
technology. They have the paradoxical effect of rendering us at
once more connected and less together.
“Dinnertime” and “weekends” are traditional
family times for many. Setting aside such “sacred times”
is the essence of family ritual, assuring us some common family
time away from work and other activities. But the demands of the
workplace and of extracurricular activities for kids have eaten
into the times we used to set aside for family meals and other family
activities. It’s not so uncommon now for meetings at work
to go into the evening, or for sports practice to run late or start
early in the evening. Some forms of togetherness have been enhanced
by these changes, but not the family.
We seem to have more flexibility in juggling our personal schedules
and a greater ability to stay in contact with people. But time to
be together—in the old-fashioned, face-to-face sense—is
increasingly at a premium. Bringing people together in a significant
way is the age-old function of ritual, which is why we at the MARIAL
Center are interested in these changing modes of scheduling.
In the current issue of our newsletter, Families That Work, we highlight
the work of MARIAL postdoctoral fellow Drew Whitelegg, who is studying
the lives of flight attendants and their families (see
story). This research comes very close to home
for me. My wife is a flight attendant. In many ways we all have
benefitted from the extraordinary flexibility of her work schedule.
Her unit of work isn’t the day or the week but rather “the
trip,” which is more of a negotiable module than a fixed unit
of labor. With sufficient seniority, a flight attendant can bid
a monthly schedule around the demands of the family, and then juggle
the pieces of that schedule with exquisite dexterity by trading
trips, changing trips, dropping trips and adding trips as the family
Such “flextime” scheduling has advantages for arranging
family life, but these advantages come at a price. Such a modularized
schedule allows for flexibility in orchestrating complex family
interactions at any one time period. But it doesn’t provide
a family with any kind of predictable routine; it makes it hard
for us to all find regular times to be together. From week to week
it’s sometimes hard to predict when my wife will be home and
when she will be working. True, as she moved up in seniority, she
could bid her schedules around key holidays. But occasionally we
still have to celebrate Thanksgiving on Friday.
My kids seemed to have adapted pretty well to living at the edge
of flextime. It’s all they knew. But creating the routines
and rituals that shape the family year have often been a major hurdle
for us, which is why I became interested in studying contemporary
The importance of social ritual, of setting aside regular times
and places for being together—really together—has become,
if anything, more important as we experience the dizzying fragmentation
of a world in which we may find ourselves increasingly alone, together.
A version of this essay first appeared in the MARIAL Center
newsletter, and it is reprinted with permission.