The water cooler at work has surpassed the front porch, town hall and local church as our major site of human contact.
Americans do most of their socializing and communicating on the job rather than with folks at home, with friends or neighbors, according to a study of 1,009 adults conducted by Scripps Howard New Service and Ohio University.The study also found that despite having telephones, e-mail and the Internet, we still do the majority of our communicating face-to-face.
Overall, participants in the nationwide poll said they have an average of 13 significant discussions a day, defined as face-to-face conversations that are more than just a simple hello.
But fewer than six of these conversations occurred outside the workplace. When looking only at Americans who have full-time jobs, more than two-thirds of all of their conversations in life occur at work.
"This is fascinating. Those of us who study community contacts have long suspected that social connections are moving into the workplace and out of the neighborhoods," concluded Harvard University professor Robert Putnam.
Putnam drew national attention two years ago with "Bowling Alone," an essay that suggested that America is undergoing fundamental social change in the ways it communicates and interacts.
"This is the best evidence we have seen yet of that trend. I think this is a quite important discovery," he said.
Most Americans believe it is still easy to make new friends. They say they are meeting and communicating with new people as much now as in the past.
"I think the definition of friendship has evolved from the notion of someone with whom we live and experience life to mere acquaintances and business relationships," said Rollin Hawley, director of the Archon Institute for Leadership Development in Washington, D.C. His group offers advice on ethics and communication.
"People talk to many more people today than they did 20 or 30 years ago. But we have less time for the highest forms of friendship. We have to spend so much time working, watching television and driving in vehicles to get to and from work."
The study found that the amount of non-work-related communication in America varies dramatically among different groups. People who live in the South and Midwest have significantly more of such conversations than do people who live in the Northeast and West.
Residents of heavily urbanized areas have much less discussion outside their workplace than do suburbanites or denizens of the nation's rural areas.
People who work full time were less likely to have non-work-related conversations than those who are unemployed or who work part time.
"What are the connections people have in life? Relatives, friends, neighbors and people at work. And it seems that relationships with neighbors are weakening," concluded Tom Smith, director of the University of Chicago's General Social Survey project.
Smith said his own studies found that the number of Americans who report spending social evenings with neighbors has declined more than 30 percent from 1974 to 1996. At the same time, the percentage of adults who work has risen dramatically as women enter the job market.
"Women were the center of the neighborhood structure. Now there are fewer women at home, more at the workplace where they interact both professionally and socially with colleagues and clients," Smith said.
The notion that "talk is cheap" seemed to apply in the poll. People living in households that earned less than $10,000 last year report having an average of nearly eight non-work-related conversations a day - almost twice the rate of conversation by residents in households that earned more than $60,000.
Women and racial minorities had significantly more conversation than did men and non-Hispanic whites. Also, people who have attended formal religious services in a church, synagogue or mosque were significantly more likely to have communication outside their workplace than those who generally stay home on Sundays or other religious days.
Only a quarter of the people answered "yes" to the question: "Have you had a long, face-to-face conversation today with somebody you've never met before?"
But the poll found that Americans make fairly upbeat assessments about their social lives. About 61 percent said they generally meet "as many" or "more" people now as in the past, and only 36 percent said they believe they are making fewer social contacts.
Fifty-five percent said they believe "it is as easy to make new friends today as it used to be." Thirty-nine percent said they believe is has become more difficult.
The study was sponsored by Scripps Howard News Service and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. The telephone survey was conducted among 1,009 adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia whose households were selected at random by computer.
This survey has a 4 percent margin of error at the 95 percent confidence interval. That means 95 times out of 100, a survey of this type will be within 4 percentage points of the results achieved if every American household had been interviewed.
Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is the distinguished professor of journalism at Ohio University.