• On the radio stations I listen to (CKNW and CBC), there have been several interviews recently featuring pundits decrying the anti-social nature of my home metro city of Vancouver. Apparently, we metro Vancouverites aren’t very friendly, or at least it’s difficult to make friends here, and many people are feeling disconnected. In each such discussion, callers to the radio shows have boasted of their methods of increasing interactions with their neighbours.

    In one case, a man was so fed up with his friends’ anti-social tendencies that he was now standing up to them. “They want me to text them instead of at least talking to me on the phone,” he complained to the soothing verbal nods of the radio pundits. So he’s started a program in which he bakes cookies, and then takes himself on a mission to visit with his friends at their homes. “About 50% of them didn’t like that I’d arrived unannounced,” he said, “so no cookies for them.” From there, he explained that his goal was to give his friends a break from whatever project they were working on: who didn’t have 15 minutes to talk face to face and maybe share a cup of tea?

    This cookie ferry was lauded by the radio pundits as someone who was showing merry creativity in his efforts to truly reconnect with his world.

    On a rival radio station, meanwhile, a man called in to say that he too is an advocate of increased social interaction and so he tries to talk to people on the bus even though, he acknowledged sadly, in 9 times out of ten he is rebuffed. In this case, the radio pundits were upset that the social hero had been so mistreated by snobby bus travelers, and they hoped he would maintain his good spirits in pursuit of his good fight.

    Such negative results proved, it seemed, that Vancouver was indeed an unfriendly city where making friends is a daunting pursuit. And apparently it’s getting worse! The highest percentage of people who find friendship-making a challenge are in the young demographic of 25-34 year-olds. This was especially sad to the pundits since, after all, within such youth there should be the greatest promise and opportunity.

    But, just a for moment, might we consider the possibility that 25-34 year olds perceive difficulty in making friends because they no longer have the free-friendship-making services of school, and they haven’t yet learned how to acquire friends in other places? Or maybe this particular crop of 25-34 year-olds, compared with previous generations, has been nurtured into assuming that they deserve a lot of friends at all times.

    “And this,” one pundit remarked, “in spite of social networking.” Their implication of course being that social networking is a false form of human connection; indeed, the pundit now had proof that social networkers were ultimately dissatisfied in spite of their lofty technical connections. The pundit did not consider any other alternative such as, say, perhaps social networkers in that age group are spoiled by the ease of virtual interactions and so they mistakenly assume that it will be equally easy out in the face-to-face world, too.

    Perhaps our city would benefit from greater social engagement than we have, and maybe social networking is hindering more than it’s helping. But if we’re not willing to scientifically interpret the evidence beyond simply taking as gospel a particular group’s self-assessment that they’re lonely, then we really have no way of knowing.

    There seems to be an unassailable agreement amongst social interaction pundits that face-to-face meeting with human beings is always better than any other form of communication. Why? Have they never been to a gathering where the conversation is stilted, boring, or overpowered by a narcissist? Do they never wish they were home reading a book, or even watching TV? Moreover, some people are introverts, which I understand means that, unlike extroverts, they are not energized by socializing, so maybe they require less in-person visiting than those who love to be around people. Perhaps, for some people, social media allows them to engage while still possessing an immediate escape route.

    And what about the benefits of engagement provided by digital communication? Each of these unholy media, from phoning, to texting, to e-mail, to Tweeting, has the power to set up plans to meet more efficiently than traditional communication. Imagine how cumbersome it would be to set up a friendly flash mob without the internet.

    Ultimately, I think new forms of communication give us more choice. Maybe today, as the pundits complained, we don’t know our next-door neighbours as well as we used to, but at the same time, instead of acquiring friendships merely based on proximity, we can now interact with people with whom we have something particularly in common, even if they live on another continent. Yes, perhaps these options are too many and are costing us interactions that would be good for us. I too find it often rude and disruptive, for instance, when people are habitually on their texter while officially visiting with someone in person. And maybe some people are addicted to their iBerry to the point that they are harming themselves without being aware of it.

    But we need more evidence for the inferiority of modern communication as a whole beyond simply that it is not face to face. Not everyone wants to interact directly with other people all the time. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re unfriendly. When I’m on the bus, I like to read or listen to my radio. I’ve met many strangers who have decided that I would be better off talking to them. And rarely in such cases have I found the conversations to be fulfilling. Perhaps that’s because I was enjoying my book or radio program, but it may also be because getting to know someone for the first time is stilted business, and so, if we’re not destined to be great friends, we’re doing the hardest part of socializing without the payoff.

    I find that people on the bus are generally pretty friendly if someone is lost or falls down. We look out for each other if there is a need, but beyond that maybe we’ve decided as a group that we’ll focus our socializing on people with whom we have a relationship, while using our solo bus trips as free time to catch up on the book we’ve been wanting to read or cell phone game we never get to play.

    The truth is it’s not hard to make friends if you’re willing to go to places where stranger-interactions are an assumed part of the activity. Sports, clubs, conferences, volunteer endeavours, and weddings are all fertile contexts for friendship-making. So, instead of imposing oneself on the nearest stranger who already had plans for their transit time, why not go to places where people have chosen to engage with new people?

    And, once people are friends, I applaud those who make the effort to create opportunities to interact, but the the idea that one’s friends should always be ready for a fifteen-minute cup of tea is the most fascist notion in the history of friendship. Dearest cookie-socializer, are there no times when you don’t want to socialize? Maybe you were just getting ready to take a shower after a long bike ride, or were planning to watch a movie with your spouse after a hard day at work; how would you like it if your friends arrived on your door step just then, informing you that it was time to socialize? And let’s be honest: it’s not going to be a “fifteen minute” morsel of time: it’ll be at least an hour before you’ll be allowed to get back to what you had planned for yourself. Perhaps YOU, cookie man, would love such an imposition of impromptu interaction, but can you comprehend the possibility that some people may have chosen their own solitude or company just then? What gives you the right to overrule your friends’ plans with your personal preference to be in their presence at that moment? Next time, just phone (or Tweet) ahead to see if they’re up for a visit, and nobody has to get hurt.

    Perhaps, as the pundits argue, the world would be a better place if we were to visit with each other more often, but those who hold that position would, I submit, have more success in achieving this goal if they were to persuade those of us less inclined by making the socializing inviting instead of obligatory. If we choose it, we will stay.

    P.S. Since typing the above, I forwarded it to the Simi Sara Show on CKNW (whereon some of the SethBlog villains of this piece were originally given their day on radio). As a result, to my delight and nervousness, I was invited onto the Simi Sara show to defend my “anti-social position” (see the below video, “The Simi Sara Show Part 1”). And below that (“The Simi Sara Show Part 2”) is the audience’s reaction to my radical views. Apparently, according to the popular consensus, there is no middle ground between always being social, and being an unfriendly jerk.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 11:05 AM

  • 11 Responses

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    • Natalie Says:

      Like. Especially annoying are those easy-entrance openers in which the speaker pretends to (a) be interested in you, or (b) have something urgent to say. My favourites are the enduring classic, “Whatcha reading?”, “Do you like UBC?”, and the just as obnoxious gesture entreating me to remove my headphones. All are difficult to get out of and all ultimately have the same result: a monologue by the offender on (a) their uninteresting life or (b) their dogmatic and uninformed opinion on a controversial issue, where I, as the listener, am expected to smile and nod. The problem is, with exceptions, the kind of person who most often tries to strike up a conversation with a stranger is not the greatest conversationalist.

    • Tom Durrie Says:

      First, let me second Natalie”s response. Most of us who are strangers have little or nothing to say to each other so we might as well shut up. A casual greeting and brief comment on the weather should be adequate to signal amity, I’m-not-going-to eat-you-alive, just hear how nice my voice is. These intereactions are, I believe, important parts of social cohesion. Real friendships, where we would happily sit around a table and chat for an hour or so, are very rare. We all have lots of casual friends, at least I do, where we’ll get together from time to time, usually with a few drinks, and talk about what we’ve been doing since we last saw each other, how everthing is going, etc., etc. Then are are those friendships that involve more interesting and far ranging conversation and more intimate knowledge of each other’s beliefs and likes and dislikes. These usually last for years. otherwise, please spare me the cookie monster who demands I pay attention to him (or her) instead of to my own affairs.

    • Tom Durrie Says:

      And: Good stuff, Seth. Thank you, and I think this business about Vancouver being unfriendly is nonsense.
      Tom

    • Tarrin Says:

      Great essay. I think the difference between introverts and extroverts deserves further exploration. Perhaps we fundamentally don’t understand each other, causing assumptions of rudeness.

      Random socializers often seem to feel that they are engaging in a supremely virtuous action, and that those who decline to join are simply not as evolved.

      I occasionally feel like the person who is interrupting my book-reading suffers from the inability to amuse themselves and requires outside stimulation. They generally lack the ability to pick on subtle and not-so-subtle cues that their advances are unwelcome.

    • meggles Says:

      Brilliant title! heh heh

    • RBB Says:

      I personally find technology hinders public interaction. Classic case is our elevator. Most mornings everyone is focused on checking their email, and it’s rare for anyone to say good morning. I’m guilty of that as well. However technology can foster communication. If you hadn’t posted this article I doubt we would have had the conversation in person. (most likely because I can’t carry a conversation without checking my smartphone..ugh)

      Definitely gave me food for thought..

    • Coo Says:

      As someone who is dating a drive-by socialiser, I would like to reinforce that there is a time and place for gentle interaction with strangers (which Seth did reference in the CKNW interview). Said spouse is (generally) able to differentiate between a receptive audience and one that is clearly more engaged with their electronic device/book/random internal thoughts/nothing at all. The cookie monster is not able to see the subtlety, and enforces his/her notion of what acceptable communication should be. I challenge the notion that personal devices, etc are not mediums of communication (even with one’s self) worthy of respect in their own right.

      While I do see a more standoff-ish culture in Vancouver, I don’t see why we feel that is worthy of negative judgement. I am now on a cookie fast for the next 2 days.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you Natalie, TomD, Tarrin, Meggles, RBB, and Coo for these eloquent comments. I think you have captured the point I may have failed in making on the radio.

      Most of us have arenas where we like to socialize, and where we don’t. So what’s so bad if our culture tends to think of the bus as a place NOT to get to know the nearest random person?

      RBB’s elevator example is an interesting one. When I have joined in chatting there, I have found it to be more awkward than average since we’re so limited by the elevator’s preferences. Thus, if a fellow elevator traveller had their phone out, I certainly wouldn’t want to interrupt for the sake of my unfocussed blather.

    • Tamsen Says:

      cooooooool!

      it’s funny as i think they’re really not getting your point, assuming that you’re some cranky little whipper-snapper and refusing to actually hear your argument. and, Simi even summed it up beautifully saying that it’s okay to try to be friendly but time-hijackers can’t be so selfish and assume that they can do it whenever and wherever THEY want… read the body language and listen to the vocal cues.

      and, just because, your cousin Fred up in Northern BC (ie. some small town) can talk to everyone up there, it doesn’t mean that every city will be the same. like you said, the city has a zillion social places to go… that’s the great thing about a city, unlike a small town where you have to get your socializing in wherever as there’s not many alternatives and in a small town everyone also knows everyone else.

      bottom line: if you want the friendliness of a small town, what the frack are you living in a city for? (not unlike my argument against people who complain about Toronto when it’s cold and then also when it’s hot… you pick a temperature that you hate and loyally stick to your hate of it. if you want to hate more than one season – and complain about it, move).

      great job!

    • Wendy Says:

      I am reminded of a subway ride home to Scarborough with a group of high school friends back in the early ‘70’s. We were amusing ourselves by punching a balloon back and forth. All eyes followed the balloon and when it came near a fellow passenger, he or she would shyly join us in the game of keeping the balloon in the air. The car was filled with laughter from the group of long-haired kids in jeans and smiles from the passengers on that train, caught having fun when they least expected it. It was nice!

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tamsen: I love your term “time hijackers”, and your comment that they need to read people’s body language to see if they’re interested in being social.

      Hee, hee, I’m not convinced, however, that, if my enemies don’t like the city lifestyle, they shouldn’t live there, because they may not have that option, or they might like other things about the city. But I won’t point that out since I like your support! 😉

      And thanks Wendy for your sweet tale of spontaneous socializing. Unlike the villains of my piece, it seems like you and your friends read the situation and determined that people seemed to be enjoying your social offering. If that ever happens to me, I will consider participating. 🙂

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