Admit It, You Picked Up This Newspaper to Look Busy

Posted on December 5, 2012 by

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By Thom Friend

 

Today I will venture to share with you a short anecdote regarding an incident that occurred right here on

campus last autumn. I did something strange, something we are urged not to do, something that makes

us ill at ease; I made conversation with a stranger. I know, “big deal,” right? But I think that in a way, it

has become one.

 

In a society with an increasing population density and a frightening number of electronic distractions, conversing with strangers has become something that we are encouraged to actively avoid.

We do not have to speak face-to-face with people because we can just call them.  If that is too much, we could always just shoot them a text message. Automated check-out lines at the grocery stores insure that we are not forced to have that terrifying conversation with the clerk about whether we want paper or plastic. When our parents call the doctor’s office for an appointment, they grumble about having to speak with a “robot,” whereas when we find that a business has an automated operator, we

breathe an inward sigh of relief that we will not have to deal with a human being.  I am sure you have noticed and participated in these kinds of human avoidance situations even here on campus. For example, on the first day of class, when everyone is standing in the hallway waiting for the professor to arrive, you might look around and find that every person is typing feverishly on their cellphone.

 

One chilly fall day last year, I was walking to my super-secret, never-fails, parking spot on May Street. As

I was leaving the South entrance of campus, I noticed that directly in my path was a man hanging from a

tree branch with his feet lifted off of the ground. As I walked past him, my initial thought was “in a few

minutes I’ll be posting to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., about how I came across this weirdo hanging

from a tree on campus.” It was at that time that I realized how indoctrinated with social technology

I had become. I walked by him as I thought this, thinking that I might just forget about it. But then I analyzed the situation; I was curious about something, and the only thing that was stopping me from finding the answer was this bizarre fear of sparking up conversation with strangers. I turned around,

approached the man, and said, “Hey, what are you doing up there?” He relinquished his hold on the

horizontal branch, and responded (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Hello. You see, I have arthritis and it gets

bad this time of year, especially in my back. When I stretch it out it feels much better.” This led to

a nice conversation about how my father is also arthritic and we then discussed various little techniques

to help with the pain, exchanging useful information.

 

When it eventually came time for me to say goodbye, I realized that this was yet another opportunity

to cross this imaginary social boundary that our generation has been drawing. Normally, I would have

just said, “Well, I’ve got to get going, see you later.” But I thought about how this man is struggling with

something, and seeking alternative ways to cope with it. I felt a little proud and encouraged by him.

 

“Hey, man. Don’t ever let this arthritis thing get you down,” I said as I walked away.

 

“Oh, I won’t. It won’t beat me,” he responded with unruffled reassurance.

 

I have not seen that fine gentleman since that day, one year ago, but I learned a valuable lesson from

him. If we inflict upon our children the notion that strangers are to be avoided and feared, and if we

cling to our distractions as a means to elude them, they may avoid some undesirable situations in life.

 

However, they will also miss out on opportunities to make new friends; learn new things; and experience one of those basic needs of being human, relating to others. They might grow up seeing

anyone they do not know as an enemy, someone who is quietly judging them and making assumptions;

they will become so involved in interactions with their cellphones and computers that they will forget how to interact with their peers; they will turn into the angry drivers who beep at me when I do not hit the gas fast enough when the light turns green (I am just conjecturing here).

 

Now, none of this is to say that there is anything wrong with being shy or introverted. And besides,

to say that you are either social or antisocial would be dichotomizing an issue which we know is much

more complex than that. Sometimes we all like to keep to ourselves, and certainly everyone is different.

But there appears to be (and I am no social scientist, and this is not one of those types of articles) some

evidence to suggest that encouraging these distractions and avoiding strangers has had a negative

impact on society. I have heard my generation is the most well-connected generation in history, but that it is also the loneliest, as we grow further away from family and friends and closer to our battery-powered addictions.

 

So, what I am urging you to do is simple (in theory): turn off your phone and go say “hello” to a man

hanging in a tree (or anyone for that matter, so long as you have used some degree of discretion in

choosing when and where is a safe place). I have never found that anyone has come out for the worse

in attempting to slightly expand their comfort zone. And personally, I find that challenging yourself in

small ways like this is one of the most rewarding things you can do in an average day. Perhaps you are

missing out on an opportunity right now. You might even only be reading this article in order to avoid

eye-contact and conversation with the stranger standing nearest you. If that is the case, don not worry, my feelings are not hurt. But, I would urge you to put the paper down (in your backpack, to save it for later of course…) and make a new acquaintance. And even if it does not go well the first time, give yourself a small pat on the back anyway; it will only get easier from here, and you have embarked on a journey of questioning the socially-constructed norms that we often accept so mindlessly in our society. As Edward Abbey said, “Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top.”

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