December 19, 2006

Saying hello to strangers

I spent most of my school holidays in my grandparents’ house in a small industrial town in the North West of England. The town wasn’t pretty, but most of my happiest childhood memories are of that place. The simple reason is that everyone there was friendly. It was easy to strike up conversation with strangers because it was common to greet people with a question (usually something to do with the weather).
It’s not quite as nice now, but it is still a lot easier to get on with people there than it is in the South East. Our towns are so crowded that we try to ignore the people around us and never get involved with them. mp3 players make it even easier for us to shut out the world around us.
And yet, curiously, we see consumer technology that encourages to interact with strangers. There’s social networking and playing online games. What ever became of Freever, whose gadget (maybe it was an add-on for mobile phones) would alert you to another nearby Freever user whose profile complimented your own? And the Zune gives you access to another user’s playlist if they are nearby. It’s technology taking the effort out of approaching others.
It’s odd how we are supposed to be social creatures and yet we don’t speak to people, especially those strangers who we see every day. I was struck by this whimsical article from the BBC about a photographer who decided to break down the invisible barriers that separated her from these intimate strangers. After the initial effort, the exercise wasn’t as painful as you’d expect.
Maybe we are a little too precious about our barriers. Life’s so fast we don’t have time or the inclination to physically interact with others. We filter our emails, background noise, advertising and other people.
I guess that’s what we call progress.

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