Thought For The Day – Loneliness – 19th Jan 2018

Before her death last year, the MP Jo Cox set up a Commission to look at Loneliness, which affects nine million people in the UK.

It’s estimated that half of those aged over 75 live alone. 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in more than a month. Many of them go for days or even weeks with no social interaction at all.

But it’s not just the elderly. Carers are feeling lonely, young mothers are feeling lonely; even teenagers are feeling lonely, in spite of their smartphones. The Commission worked with 13 charities, including Age UK and Action for Children, and found that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So this week, Downing Street announced a new Minister for Loneliness, and we’re all being asked to try making a difference through “simple acts of companionship.”

Jesus was sensitive to the lonely – noticing Levi sitting alone in his tax booth, and Zacchaeus stuck up a tree. He chatted to the woman at the well, and he singled out beggars as he walked along the road. But what might “simple acts of companionship” mean for us? Well, it basically means talking to strangers a bit more, which even we garrulous Scots find quite hard. So next time you’re at the bus-stop, or in the queue, or passing a neighbour’s gate, here’s some advice from Jane Austen – talk about the weather!

The anthropologist Kate Fox says that visitors to the UK remain puzzled by our amazing capacity to talk about the weather. She’s examined this phenomenon in detail, and finds that our weather-talk serves a very specific function: we use it as a standard greeting, as a way to break the ice with strangers. It’s the modern-day equivalent of a handshake to show that the sword arm is not engaged. We already use it as a “simple act of companionship,” because talking about the weather is a way of letting those around us know that we’ve noticed them; that we mean them no harm; and that we’re interested in passing the time of day with them.

Of course Scotland has a lot of weather, and for many of us the snow’s been a real problem this week; so it’s unlikely we’ll ever run out of things to say about it, particularly at this time of year.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

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