Ignoring vs Interacting

Have you ever noticed that most people in public places tend to ignore each other?

I know I certainly do.

I avoid eye contact.  I don’t sit on the same bench as anyone else.  I pretend I’m the only person on a subway car.  I try to disengage if someone does talk to me.

But all the literature I’ve ever read talks about how public space is the key to building community.  How is that possible if nobody acknowledges anybody else’s existence?

I wrote an entire 115 000 word book about how communal spaces in the Neolithic would have fostered integration and cohesion within a community, entirely ignoring my own experiences in public space.  I hardly ever talk, interact, or even acknowledge people I meet in public space, but can espouse for hours about how similar spaces in the Neolithic would have been used for intense interaction.

What is the difference?  Why are modern experiences of public spaces so isolating?  Maybe it’s me?  Am I anti-social?

I wonder whether this has more to do with the removal of ritual from most people’s lives in modern urban cities.  We no longer have the structure provided by formalized experiences to guide our interactions and we fall back on pretending people aren’t there.  Alternatively, it might simply be the scale of modern cities.  Public spaces are no longer there to allow people to develop relationships, but instead are there to let people blow off steam.

Maybe both.

What do you think?


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2 Responses to Ignoring vs Interacting

  1. John says:

    I grew up in New York City, where like you I always kept my eyes to myself on the train and thought it was weird if anyone I didn’t know engaged me in public. I was always embarrassed when my Grammy would visit and just start talking to people on the street.
    When I moved to Austin, where you’ve got the Southern hospitality and friendliness, it took me a while to adjust to the differences in public engagement, even if it was as simple as the idea that making eye-contact isn’t threatening and that cashiers would actually speak to you beyond telling you your total.
    I thought about it, and in some sense I think it has to do with the effect of crowds and noise in a very busy place like NYC. Personal space there is always being intruded upon by the mere fact of the street noise and crowd jostle. The only personal space you have is mental solitude and privacy. It’s why reading over someone’s shoulder on the bus or train is considered to be extremely rude, but people will leave the paper behind when they’re done. I might even argue that transit-related spaces (even streets) might not be seen as a public space, as opposed to something like parks. This is pretty much what you said at the end of your blog post, of course 🙂

    • You know, that reminds me of something that we talked about every time we came back to Canada when living in the UK. One of the things I disliked about living in the UK was the lack of interaction. In Canada, people talk a lot more on public transit and in shops than in the UK. Not random people necessarily, but commuters that always took the same train would take ages before acknowledging each other. Staff at coffee shops would also only just tell you your total. This wasn’t something we really noticed until we came back to Canada, and barristas would chat while making your drink. There is definitely some cultural variation to this.

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