Tuesday, April 7, 2015

We Are Becoming Strangers to Each Other

The other day, I was on a bus heading to work. There was a guy sitting near me with his headphones turned all the way up. Across the aisle, another guy talked loudly into a cell phone about banalities to some other guy he'd never met before. At one point, head phone dude turned to the woman sitting next to him and said, "This is why I got these headphones. For idiots like that," pointing to the guy on the cell phone. Then he returned to bopping his head to the techno music the entire front end of the bus could hear.

When reflecting on this scene, a few things come to mind. First off, the ways in which simple connecting and interacting with strangers or relative strangers is often sorely lacking in modern urban life. The invasion of technology, as well as multiple generations of people indoctrinated to fear their neighbors, or be suspicious of the actions of those they don’t know, has made something as basic as conversations between strangers a rarity. In addition, the disappearance of public space in many cities has eliminated the majority of opportunities to even have those conversations – to make connections with people who you probably would normally not connect with otherwise.

Public spaces are being privatized by the minute. Spending more time in downtown Minneapolis recently, it was interesting to read this article, which points out how little public space is actually left for people to gather together downtown. Not only does the lack of public space lead to more segregated places, but it also creates severe limits on the ability of people to exercise basic rights, such as the right to petition the government and conduct public demonstrations about social issues.

At the same time, remaining public spaces, like buses, are filled with a mixture of invasions into personal space and a lack of healthy, shared interactions between people. On another ride filled with people on cell phones, blackberries, and head thumping music, the guy sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation with me. However, since I’d spent the previous half an hour bombarded by the noise of cell phone conversations and music from ipods, I could barely follow what he was saying.

And maybe it's just me, but just having a conversation with a stranger for the sake of it seems to becoming rarer and rarer. People want money. Or a cigarette. Or to borrow a cell phone. Or a lighter. As soon as such requests are fulfilled or not fulfilled, the interaction is over. It's totally understandable that someone who is destitute and desperate will be focused on getting their basic needs met. However, I'm seeing this behavior all over, seemingly regardless of background and needs. And I can’t claim to be all that much better. Sometimes, I try to interact or at least smile at people I meet on the street or on the bus. Other times, I avoid eye contact all together, hoping to avoid an expected request that I can’t, or don’t wish to fulfill.

How much of this is a regional, or national theme? I don’t know. It would be interesting to hear other folks’ experiences with these issues. Do you think it’s more difficult to have actual conversations with people in public places? Do you ever strike up conversations with strangers? Do you have any interesting stories related to this topic to share with the rest of us?


Anonymous said...

Ahhh, Nathan.... Move to a small town.. People talk there...strangers talk there... maybe cause they're bored or just plain interested... it's hard to say. I live in a small town. Only 30,000 people, but I moved from a smaller town of 2500 people. Didn't even have a stop light. Knew everybody. But this town I live in now is a "red-neck" town. They talk to each other too! Weird!... It's like talking to you all the time and reading your blog. maybe it's the word 'dangerous'?... sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn't write a comment to you , maybe that's not hip? Maybe you'll think I'm a nut bar? Who knows, right? that's the risk when you talk to a stranger. It takes confidence. Swagger. Risk...There's a lot at stake. Rejection. Judgement. Faith... maybe no one remembers that they are talking to GOD? Or the light of the Divine shining thru? I don't know? ..... Right now I'm making scones. they are baking while I write this. They smell great... I'd call you and invite you over for one but I don't have a phone... well, not a cell phone. I think they are killing the planet but that's just me. People think I'm a nut bar cause I don't have one....Some times it takes the first step to approach a stranger cause they are feeling the same way you are... gotta go. the scones are ready... hope this finds you well. Tracy

n. yeti said...

Tracy, I'll see your nutbar and raise you some bananas: I lived without a TV for 20 years until I had kids and realized they'd hate me for it. So now I just (cue ominous music) exercise jedi mind control over how much and what I let pass through that screen into our home. But, seriously the alienating and dehumanizing influence of technology is most acutely felt in the spiritual aspect of people's lives. It is so rare for people in the average American city to have much real or meaningful connection with those around them, and I have felt as Nathan has while riding the bus that there is something deeply awry with the direction of our species away from support and care for other human beings to disinterest and careless disregard for the incredible wonder of life itself.

Nathan said...

I lived in a small town for 2 years during my undergrad days Tracy. I've experienced that kind of connection as well. One thing I'll say about it though is that if you're not "from there" - i.e. born and raised there - you'll often not be embraced.

It's a different form of alienation. Folks willing to share pleasantries with you, but won't go much further than that. My father and step mother, after 20 years of rural living, still experience as much of that as actual connection.

And yet, I do think they have more connections with neighbors than I do. And I know I felt more connected in the small town I lived in than in city where I have lived most of my life in. It's an odd feeling.

n. yeti said...

I actually feel more connected with the people on this blog than some of my neighbors. Since I fully embrace the doctrine of transmigration (or reincarnation, call it what you will), I think it is interesting to notice subtle impressions about people, even strangers, or otherwise anonymous people. I have certainly met a few people with an immediate and strong bond, most generally a positive one. Being open to others can be hard in an urban environment but I think it is really important. I wandered a lot in my life, have met so many people. It seems to mean something more than randomness. Isn't it weird to see strangers on a bus and think that we may all have been parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends, many times over. It puts a whole new perspective on how we live and interact. For those walking around with obsessive hate and rage, trying to prey on others I feel true pity. There are ones like that too. They have no idea the trouble they are causing for themselves. Maybe even sooner than later karma will manifest, and it won't be pretty.

Was Once said...

I used to wear headphones in the gym, and about four years ago i just stopped and started up conversation with strangers who were willing to talk, as well as doing on the street.
One result of this, was the only gift from non-family for my wedding was $100 from a gym aqaintance I met, being a christian she was honored by my our buddhist devotion. She often sees me meditate in a break after yoga and can tell how much it affects my spirit and comments about me being grounded, post. It led to me sitting with her first guided meditation... ever.
I, in turn, got to know her life's story of tragedy and triumph. Real life stories you could not make up, that point where one realizes we are lucky. A simple thing like this kind of connection makes our life meaningful, and our days become special.

Next time you see someone fingering an Iphone with no great focus...they are hoping for this...have some pity.

Unknown said...

We each make our own choices. I choose to not walk around with headphones on, to be open to strangers and random conversations. I choose to be open to mutual recognitions of humanity, of badic courtesy.

I also choose to not let random people intrude on me with their assumptions that I need to take a leaflet or donate to the "Blind orphan albino puppies fund" or whatever.

I choose not to let devises condition me. If Mrs Dole "likes my photo" it's not worth a notification or an email.

My cell can be left on my desk. I can run trails. I can run without headphones - and yet my running T has a special loop so that my headphone cable doesn't flap around, WTF!

We have created a world in which we isolate from each other. In which we think a phone that's a tamagotchi is more important than any real people around us.

We've created a world of entitled narcissists. A world that seeks to drain our connectedness and humanity.

But we can choose. But our choices now look odd to many.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to talk to strangers. That is true. Unless you are Zen. If your are a Zen Master, you might build a garden. It will be so beautiful, people will be attracted to it. At first they will not notice a humble gardener, dressed in poor labourers' clothes, working quietly at weeding or sweeping. But some will speak to that unassuming gardener, whether to ask the name of a plant, or the name of the one who is responsible for the beauty before them. And if they look into the smiling eyes of the gardener, they will know, for a second, the Way.