The anonymity of the crowd

I’ve been thinking this morning about the effect of city living on our collective psyche. I’m sat on a crowded train with two bags and a lap top on my lap. Although the train is always half empty when I get on, it never fails to get crowded two stops down the line and 20 mins in to my journey there’s standing-room only.

A man sat next to me about 20 minutes ago. There’s not quite enough room in the double seat for both of us. Our arms are touching. I’m squashed. He read his magazine for a while and then dozed off. He’s now snoring. In a few minutes his head may drop on my shoulder. This is pretty intimate. Yet he hasn’t looked at me at all, or wished me good morning or done anything at all to acknowledge that I even exist. This is of course, completely normal. But it’s also – well – rude!

In places in the UK where people are not very numerous, and also where they are just more friendly than the South East, strangers still acknowledge each other. If we’re out for a family walk and pass someone else on a footpath, we will exchange greetings. When I travel abroad I’m often struck by how much more interaction goes on between people who don’t know each other in many other cultures. Even in mega cities like New York, I’ve experienced strangers giving me compliments out of the blue like, “Great hat!” before they disappear into the sea of people. That sort of thing doesn’t really happen much in London. People do talk to strangers of course, but it’s not the norm. And they are nice to each other and help each other with pushchairs and heavy luggage, let each other out at junctions and offer their seats on public transport, but they also don’t do that. There’s an awful lot of not doing that. And it’s so normal to not do it that when it does happen it’s often remarkable.

I believe there is an impact on our state of mind of this failure to acknowledge other people. It has a dehumanising effect on both the ignorer and the ignored. It makes people more defensive, insular and selfish – more focused on the self to the exclusion of others. I think this probably impacts how we feel about ourselves and the world and, in tiny increments, pervades all aspects of our collective and even individual behaviour.

Of course it’s not possible to say hello to everyone you see when you go about your business in a town or city. That would be stupid. I’m not saying we should attempt to do that. Just that not acknowledging people when you spend time in their close proximity or knock into them in the street has an effect. One that I personally find difficult to cope with, hence I no longer live in London.

In days of yore when communities were a lot smaller, we didn’t have this problem. Everyone more or less knew everyone else (which of course would bring it’s own challenges). So this is a relatively modern phenomenon.

Anyway the guy next to me has stopped snoring and hasn’t put his head on my shoulder. Of course I would never say anything to him to break the little commuter bubbles constraining us both. That would be far too scary. But I’m kind of hoping he glances at my laptop screen and reads what I’ve written.

About jopratt

I’m a communications consultant specialising in non-profits. You can follow me on Twitter @jo108.
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