I’m not exactly an imposing guy. I don’t pump much iron. I guess I can wear a lot of dark clothing, but that’s usually accompanied by a clerical collar. And the Iowa niceness I grew up around comes across pretty quickly.
Recently, however, during the course of many long walks in a bustling urban neighborhood, people seemed afraid to look at me. I tried to smile at others as I walked, but most were too busy looking at their phones, or their dogs, or a crack in the sidewalk—anything but the person passing them—so that they did not have to make uncomfortable eye contact with a stranger.
Even a woman wearing a shirt that said, “It takes a smile” didn’t, well, take my smile and return it. She was too busy looking down to notice me.
I don’t think this experience is unique to this city or because of my (not exactly) threatening appearance. These passersby were simply following “the rules” when it comes to walking through most large American cities.
I spent the past two years in East Africa unable to go anywhere in public without people staring at me, calling out to me from across the street or striking up a conversation. It was never boring. At times, however, especially after a long day, I often yearned for a little more peace and quiet and the ability to go somewhere without being noticed.
Now, back in the States, I can pass thousands of people without anyone saying a single word to me. It might feel more comfortable not to be interrupted, but it’s not exactly comforting when people do not acknowledge my existence.
As I passed crowds of people and felt a mission to connect with others on the sidewalk, I found myself thinking, “Don’t you know I want to say hi to you? Please look at me!” I was surrounded by people in the heart of the city but still felt lonely.
I thought being in a place where I could walk without being bothered would be refreshing, but now that I have returned to a place where I blend in and can walk without drawing attention, I can’t help but feel that I have lost something instead.
Recent research seems to support my own experience. Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago, asked a group of experiment participants to keep to themselves and “enjoy their solitude” while commuting on a train. They asked another group to initiate a conversation with a fellow passenger.
Before the experiment, participants expected to prefer the solitary ride, but afterward those who spoke reported a more pleasant commute than those told to savor their solitude. Those who talked to someone were often surprised by just how enjoyable it was.
Often, when I am tired or stressed, I think that what I need is some “me” time. Perhaps, however, I actually need more “we” time.
The rules for keeping to ourselves in a city, instead of reaching out to strangers, might not be helpful. They might in fact make us much less happy.
In a Chicago Tribune article describing the results, Epley writes, “People have strong beliefs about what will make them happy. Sometimes those beliefs are systematically wrong.”
Additionally, while we may hold relationships with family members and close friends to be far more important than encounters like these with strangers, some studies indicate that the more social interactions we have—even with the person who tells you your shoe is untied, or the sneezing stranger to whom you say, “God bless you”—the happier we tend to be.
When I think of my day, I might not even remember all the spontaneous, short encounters with strangers or recognize their importance. At the same time, if I have extra pep in my step for seemingly no reason, it’s often because of seeing the goodness of humanity in the kindness of a stranger.
During my recent attempts to get people to notice my smile or say hi on the sidewalk, many of the people who said something to me were paid to do it. They were working for a bar or restaurant and were trying to get people to come inside. While such brief greetings—“How’s it going? We have some great specials today...”—are not very profound encounters, they at least make us feel that we’re noticed, that we’re human, that we’re not alone.
And isn’t that what we really want?