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Passive Social Interaction: The Magic of Being Around People

In college I did Study Abroad in Tokyo, Japan. That year was the most stressful year of my life at that point. In addition to moving to a foreign land I was also going to college and working to help pay for everything. I can still recall arriving back at my dorm room one evening, realizing the extremely complex string of social interactions I had just accomplished to get there. That evening after hanging out with friends I took the subway home, walked through the college gate and interacted with the guards, greeted everyone I was expected to greet on the way to my room, and finally had a short interaction with my roommate - and I had done all of this in Japanese and according to the Japanese custom. All of my interactions were highly scripted and complex, but mostly passive in nature. By that I mean that my goal was to get home, but to do that I had to do a significant amount of socializing.

The truth is that getting milk at the store or picking up my dry cleaning is equally scripted and complex. We've just done it so often that we don't really even think about it. Even walking the dog involves waving to neighbors, avoiding the kids on bikes, waiting for drivers to wave me past, and making sure I don't offend my neighbors with failing to clean up after my dog. Walking my dog also involves a number of complex, scripted, and passive social interactions.

I work with many people that report feeling down or even depressed. I've noticed over the years that even though it is not a formal diagnostic criteria, most of my clients with low mood also report being isolated. Isolation is, in my experience, a leading cause of low mood. Clients tell me that they don't have the energy to go out and socialize with others. Specifically they tell me that voluntary social obligations, like going to church or planning dinner with friends simply feels like more than they can handle, or that they feel they need to stay home and rest.

When people have low mood they actually need to socialize. Socializing is a common behavioral treatment for depression. But the kind of socializing I mean is not going to a loud party or asking someone to lunch. I recommend my clients increase their passive social interactions, among other things. I suggest they go grocery shopping, walk the dog in the neighborhood, run errands, or otherwise interact with the public in these highly functional, highly scripted social interactions where the major social task is acknowledging the existence of others by engaging in polite behavior. It's what normally happens when people leave their houses, or for young people, leave their rooms. Do not underestimate the effects of the passive social interaction.

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