Must we ignore each other?

I wait for the Metro to take me downtown. It’s winter and brutally cold in the dark station. I’m in D.C., our nation’s capitol to attend a overgrown conference on the exhilarating topic of transportation. All around me, people are preoccupied with either the images and voices in their heads or the ones on their screens. Walking past expressionless faces, I feebly attempt a “hi there” or a smile. It turns out, I’m invisible, a ghost. The next three days I oscillate between the hyper-socialiabilty of conference “networking” and the street’s frigid alienation.

 photo (6)

I get the sense that most wish to wallow in their privacy. And I admit that sometimes I too relish being left alone. Janes Jacobs, the urbanist extraordinaire, certainly appreciated city-sanctioned privacy:

“In small settlements, everyone knows your affairs. In the city everyone does not – only those you choose to tell will know much about you. This is one of the attributes of cities that is precious to most city people, whether their incomes are high or their incomes are low, whether they are white or colored, whether they are old inhabitants or new, and it is a gift of great-city life deeply cherished and jealously guarded” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 76).

Back in my “small settlement” of Carrboro, NC (population of about 20,000), I encounter much the same public behavior as I did in the grand city of D.C..  Walking along a downtown sidewalk, fully 6 out of 8 human eyeballs fail to make eye contact with mine. Dogs on the other hand, won’t look away. On the bus, people behave as though on a horizontally gliding elevator: purposefully enthralled by idevice, staring around or through you to something evidently much more interesting.

I admit that I’m guilty of ignoring and “excluding” people while walking, biking, or riding the bus. Sometimes I just don’t feel like engaging; sometimes people creep me out; and sometimes I’m just plain tired.

Yet constantly ignoring and being ignored weighs down on me after a while. And this weighted feeling seems to be exacting a collective toll. In one large study, researchers found that Americans had far fewer intimate relationships than they did just a few decades ago.

Across the pond the English writer, George Monbiot, has deemed ours the “Age of Loneliness”, arguing:

“Like the stone age, iron age and space age, the digital age says plenty about our artefacts but little about society. The anthropocene, in which humans exert a major impact on the biosphere, fails to distinguish this century from the previous 20. What clear social change marks out our time from those that precede it? To me it’s obvious. This is the Age of Loneliness.

For several awkward years, I passed the same guy on my walk or bike to work. Our schedules overlapped uncannily, as nearly everyday we’d pass each other within the same city block. During the first two years of this dance, he wouldn’t look in my direction. I never blamed him, but I found his disinterest, social anxiety, or both, perplexing. Then two years ago, on an overcast spring day, he returned my eye contact with a friendly nod of recognition. This may sound silly, but that morning, I sensed a skip in my step, a lightness of foot. I trust he felt the same, for now each time we pass one another, we smile, nod, wave, or sometimes manage a “hey.”

Since then, I’ve learned that these simple exchanges can boost our sense of belonging, which believe it or not, is good for us.

I know there’s a social limit to how much you should engage others in public. People would refer me to social services if I started bellowing “hello!” to everyone I encountered. But there are times and places in which friendly acknowledgements can bring others into the fold.

After getting the attention of my fellow working man, I’ve tended to offer a heartier “good evenin!” to my neighbors upon reaching my street. What took root in one place has spread its convivial influence across my “small settlement.”

Pin It