Opinion: America doesn’t want you to know your neighbor
U.S. consumer culture pushes us away from communal living
In the U.S., single-person households have more than tripled since 1940. With rent becoming less affordable, many people question why they can’t afford to live alone. But we never seem to question why our goal is to live apart from others and away from a community. Why is self-reliance the goal?
A good example of communal living is the way colleges and universities structure their residential living. American University is one of the many colleges across the country that dedicates itself to creating a communal living experience — with only students with accommodations and resident assistants living in single dorms during their first and second years at the University. AU also offers students the opportunity to join living-learning communities that bring students with common academic interests or identities together to create connections.
While there is no residential requirement to live on-campus, the majority of first-year and transfer students choose to do so. Students living on campus are more likely to excel in academics and feel a stronger sense of belonging because it is easier to take advantage of on-campus resources. In AU’s traditional-style residence halls, students share a room with a roommate and a floor with around 40 neighbors. Everyone shares communal areas, such as the bathroom and lounge. Along with the actual residence hall, there are many other ways to engage in communal living on campus, such as sharing a meal in the Terrace Dining Room or studying in Bender Library.
But this community-building concept doesn’t translate well to all college students. I’ve often come across conversations where peers say they prefer single dorms and don’t want to engage in community activities. As communication becomes less of a priority, we are left with ignored conversations and awkward pauses. We simply do not know how to talk to each other.
When did we lose our ability to greet our neighbors, let alone get along with each other? In an environment like a college campus, how are we so deeply divided from one another in the midst of a community?
When a person lives alone, away from shared resources, it creates the perfect consumer model. On our own, we cannot produce everything necessary for survival and pleasure, so it makes us spend more money. The number of adults who live alone has nearly doubled over the last 50 years, despite the increasing number of adults with roommates.
In the U.S., we live in an individualistic society where everything is centered around self-reliance and independence. People who live alone pay nearly $7,000 more per year than people with roommates for one-bedroom apartments. But it doesn’t just end in rent — other living expenses such as utilities, food, furniture, cookware and more have all become more expensive. For example, buying groceries in bulk is cheaper, but it is harder for a single person to consume them before they go bad and pay the larger upfront cost.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Human beings have always been interdependent and embraced communal resources. Communal living has been around since hunter-gatherer societies. Today, this concept persists in different cultures around the world. In Western Europe, it is common to live with others because there’s less cultural emphasis on privacy. This collectivist culture is also prevalent in Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures, where kinship exists outside of a nuclear family.
Individualism fabricates the idea that we don’t need each other. Alienating us from each other makes the economy thrive. As cliché as it sounds, we need community. When we live with roommates, we share more than just our resources. It gives us the opportunity to connect to the people around us and share our compassion. The same neural circuits process social and physical pain, so our social interactions with others play an essential role in our physical well-being.
Learning to live with others is not easy. It is something we have to work on every day. Breaking out of a consumer role will not happen in one day. This work can start with talking to people on your floor or even just greeting them in the hallways. This topic also requires that we reflect on our daily interactions and interpersonal relationships. For instance, when we get into a conflict, do we respond by isolating ourselves and getting away from our loved ones or punishing them?
This article’s purpose is not to imply that every person you see should be your friend. This also isn’t to say that every community you have will be the right one. But rather, I hope my words can make you appreciate the people around you and question our tendency to distance ourselves from others. Looking back in history, social movements would not have existed if it weren’t for the fight they built together.
Meliha Ural is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication and a columnist for the Eagle.
This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing by Isabelle Kravis and Leta Lattin.