Modernity, and life in an urban (or even suburban) context offers a world full of strangers – two dimensional beings, known and categorized in seconds. It is said that you have only seven seconds to make a first impression. So too do all the humans you see around you – seven seconds. How could they have depth?
It damages us, this endless interaction with strangers. If the lack of nuance was a minority of our time, perhaps we could weather it. Some humans enjoy the anonymity of a crowd, after all. But when nearly all the people we see are unknowns, we learn to categorize on sight. This can never be accurate, and it habituates us to a world full of “us” and “them”. This feeds into our unfortunate tendency to other, and starves our need to be known. We learn to make humans two-dimensional. Complexity? What complexity? We’ve put those humans into boxes.
We need to know what to expect from those around us, so there’s little chance we’ll buck the way we were made and start “choosing” to not evaluate anyone in those seven seconds (one does not choose consciously in that time frame). No sense fussing about what’s hardwired. What we can consider is how being forced into a continual game of evaluation trains us to reduce even those we know into broad – and inaccurate – categories. Our curiosity about other humans, our interest in them, our understanding of their depth and richness is being damaged by too great a pile of people!
The internet exacerbates this. The greatest proportion of strangers we see in real life is on our commute and in errands, and many of those are in faceless metal boxes. Online, we “see” so many more people – “friends” of “friends”, fellow travelers viewing news or entertainment, discussing the latest issues. We “see” their faces (their icons) and identify them. We learn to display a precis of our own “selves” – something short, something that allows us to be categorized.
We reduce others, we reduce ourselves – simply because we must. But must we? Yes. Humans are dangerous, and we know this. When I see the man I call, “Man Who Walks With Great Intention”, I know that he will not harm me – and I know that he will not speak to me (because I’ve said hello). I need to know this, because his travels take him near my home, on my commute, near my children. It would be nice to know his name, to know why he walks with such intention.
He needs to know something of me – though he rarely looks left or right, he’s seen me. I suppose I am just another middle aged woman walking her dog – harmless. In each world, we inhabit the others’ category of “not-a-threat” and “them”. We are two-dimensional, without color, without life. The complaint is raised, “hear their stories!” – but how? Strangers don’t take time to speak to one another. That’s how we stay strangers.
We, however, do not have to surround ourselves with strangers. We have the choice to restructure our lives so that this continual exposure to what reduces us is less a part of our reality. We can move to smaller towns, have more of our interactions with those who are known to us. Putting down our devices and moving away from our screens allows us to grow, to expand – and to see others as more real, more complex, and more worthy of our time.
It is possible to end the endless sense of embattlement – it simply requires that we change.