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  • robertfarago1

A Shot to the Heart in Knoxville

There I was, sitting in Embers, a small but perfectly formed cigar lounge in Knoxville, Tennessee. I'm at the bar. Three stools. A well-fed couple to my left. Regulars. The lady was talking to the bartender about her fella's birthday, reserving space off the main lounge for a party.

I wished the guy happy birthday. The bartender set out four shot glasses. He filled them with a green-colored libation. He gave one glass to the guy, another to the gal, picked up one for himself and gave one... to the other bartender.

They toasted and drank to the birthday boy's health. A Jewish expression sprang to mind: "What am I, chopped liver?"

This was not the reception I was looking for. I'd just rolled in from Nashville, exhausted from the heat and humidity and the long and winding road. I wanted a good cigar, a cold diet Coke and some friendly chat.

Shame. I really like the look of Knoxville. The city center's walkable historic downtown is filled with bookstores, chatke shops, restaurants, pubs, cafes, a proper cinema, a performing arts center, an excellent history museum and more.

Downtown Knoxville ticked most of the right boxes, especially the one about living near great motorcycling roads. But not the one marked "friendly."

The next day, I met Embers' co-owner, a charming, gracious, intelligent, kind-hearted forty-something. Me being me, I eventually shared my leper-like treatment at her bartender's hands. She apologized and promised to have a quiet word with her less-then-solicitous staff member.

I also shared the fact that Knoxvillians seemed standoffish, based on the lack of "good mornings" and eye contact and a general sense of wariness. An impression confirmed by conversations with the Hilton doormen and a kindly waitress at a local diner.

The Ember owner said it takes a while for Knoxvillians to open-up, and only certain ones at that. "You eventually find your people," she assured me.

An assertion that had The Wandering Jew wondering: is that the way it is generally? Has Americans' legendary friendliness diminished? As John Cougar Mellencamp asked "Ain't that America?"

Anecdotal Caveat

My experiences as a stranger traveling through the Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina – looking to schmooze in cigar bars, hotels, local watering holes, shops and the like – have led me to conclude that Houston, we have a problem.

Before I continue, I want to point out that I'm not a research psychologist, nor do I play one on the Internet. Equally, no matter what variables we consider, I’m the constant.

Childhood abuse does unfortunate things to a person. The resulting low self-esteem leads to relationship problems: mistrust, poor communication skills, intimacy difficulties. So maybe I’m not the kind of person people are friendly towards.

That said, I've asked a good dozen 40+ peeps if they think people are less friendly than they used to be. The answer has been a resounding yes.

Age-related get-off-my-lawnism? Perhaps. If we accept the central premise, there are several potential culprits.


Several academic studies conclude that the COVID pandemic has taken a toll of Americans' friendliness.

Lock-down, masking, germophobia, social isolation, economic and physical uncertainty – our Year of Living Fearfully reduced our ability and yes, desire to mingle took a toll on our friendliness factor.

We observed that, about one year after the global pandemic outbreak, empathic social skills were impacted negatively whereas perspective-taking and emotional empathy increased.

I'm not sure what they mean by "perspective taking." From my perspective we live in fractious times, as evidenced by our highly antagonistic political bifurcation.

By the same token, what good is emotional empathy if it's not shared? The National Institute of Health highlighted the problem:

The level of trust and willingness to talk, help fellow human beings and get along with people in the community has significantly decreased during the epidemic. Therefore, the neighborhood cohesion is dropped more than 10% after the onset of COVID-19.


Texting has supplanted a huge amount of traditional face-to-face and voice communication.

Texting doesn't require traditional social skills, based as they are on body language (70 to 90 percent of all face-to-face communication is nonverbal).

Texting is also, by it's nature, a closed loop. Meeting new people is considered a prelude to text, rather than the other way around.

Dating apps work the other way. Though they're successful for initiating face-to-face interactions for a small percentage of users, they increase the sense of isolation for the majority. A feeling that does nothing to encourage people to mingle, romantically or otherwise.

At the same time, social media has had a well-documented negative effect on social skills for tens of millions of future adults: their inability to initiate conversations, maintain eye contact, read social cues and engage in active listening.

In short, technology reduces both the frequency of our social interactions and its effectiveness.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 70 percent of adults are overweight or obese.

The mental health effects of excessive weight are profound: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and social isolation. That's on top of low energy and chronic illness – which makes people grumpy (to say the least).

Both of which make people less likely to socialize or, indeed, socialize well.

Friendliness to Complete Strangers

All of the above has dramatically reduced and degraded social interaction, generally.

A 2019 study found that Americans spend just 39 minutes a day in face-to-face conversations. The cataclysmic decline in church attendance has certainly played its part in that stat.

So what of people completely unknown to each other? Strangers?

Outside of specific interest groups, interacting with strangers online is considered inherently dangerous. For good reason. So that's out.

Interactions between complete strangers happens predominately in commercial situations: customer to assistant. Are service workers less friendly than years ago? You know: back when people used to hang out at the mall.

I'm sure you can think of someone you buy from who's given you excellent – and by that I mean friendly – service. I also think it's safe to say that the rise of low-paying corporate-owned retail and restaurant work has had a negative effect on service providers' friendliness.

As for "casual interactions" between strangers with no commercial agenda, I reckon cigar bars are still the best place for that. That said, I'm initiating. Anyway, I'll tell you what's missing...

The Daphne Farago Effect

Whatever else you can say about my mother, she was a world class introducer.

She'd always invite people who didn't know each other to her parties and social events. She'd always introduce them to each other, often with unintentionally humorous summations.

Her third son continues this tradition, and makes conversations with strangers. For one simple reason: it's my nature. I mean, why not? I like meeting new people.

How do I do I make new friends and influence people? I say hello. In person.

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Jun 18

Here in Oregon it’s the opposite problem, people will talk to you for no reason everywhere around town. In fact, you can tell the native Oregonians from the immigrants, because natives have no problem just coming up and saying hello. Of course, Portland is the exception, since it is the home of the psycho antifa cult.


Jun 17

Robert, sounds like you need to give Knoxville a couple of more days…. Oh before I forget now that you are with in a day or two ride. Check out Lewisburg WV (Coolest Small Town in America). It is at the intersection of US Rt 60 and US Rt 219. It has everything you describe but on a small scale. For lodging I recommend the General Lewis Inn it is not a chain but a one of one…. When your leave you can go Rt 60 West toward Charleston and that is a mountain road. Or Rt 219 North through the Mounhelia National Forest. Both are beautiful drives through some back country that it is hard to believe is so…

Jun 17
Replying to

Will do

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