Surrounded by Isolation

Having lived in cities all my life, I’ve normalized the fact that strangers don’t really acknowledge one another often. We seem to go out of our way to avoid eye contact, and even when we meet eyes with a stranger accidentally, we usually look away quickly. 

In the past while, I’ve had more exposure to people who not only meet my gaze, but smile and even say hello or good morning. I’ve had conversations with people who grew up in very small towns about how much more friendly and charitable everyone is, the way people seem to genuinely care about one another more. I find it interesting that, the more people who live in an area, the less connected they get. I can think of a few reasons why this might be the case.

When you live in a place with tons of people, it’s easy to develop this unconscious notion that people are replaceable. If a friendship or relationship doesn’t work out with one person, you’ll meet someone else; if you have a negative interaction with a stranger, there’s a good chance you’ll never see them again. I think this is contributing to a general tendency I’ve seen where people ascribe external causes to their problems rather than looking at what they may be doing to create or contribute to them. It’s easy to avoid self-reflection when you can blame others or circumstance and just move on to a new situation.

Another factor is that, when you live in a densely populated place, people gain a degree of anonymity that can bring out the worst in them. It’s easy to be cruel, rude, or violent to someone you’ll never see again. The flip side of this is that we trust people less, so we don’t feel as eager to connect with strangers in any way — and so the divide grows.

When we have to deal with the same people day after day, year after year, we try a lot harder to cultivate some kind of rapport with them. We understand that hurting someone we have to interact with regularly is detrimental to our happiness, and possibly even our survival in certain circumstances.

Since I’ve been interacting with more friendly strangers, though, I’ve felt happier. And safer. I feel like they care about me, even though they don’t really know who I am. I feel like I can trust them, even though I don’t know who they are. We are social creatures, and those of us who live in big cities are, ironically, quite isolated. It’s detrimental to our emotional well-being to be surrounded by people and yet totally alone.

I haven’t really come up with any real solution for this, but I’ve started trying to be more friendly with strangers. It’s shockingly difficult for me. I get very anxious when dealing with new people, even more so when I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again. But I think of all the times that my day has been improved by a positive interaction with a total stranger, and I want to try to bring more of that into the lives of people I meet. The biggest challenge is that many people are as scared as I am, and they don’t want to engage anyone they don’t know. So I’m facing a potential rejection every time I try.

Still, I’m making an effort. And one thing I’ve noticed is that, at least internally, I’m giving people more credit; I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt more, and judging them less. So even if I haven’t become as outgoing and friendly as I’d like to be, I think I’m on the right track.

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