Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Land of the No-Look Pass

One of the very few things I dislike about my adopted city is that people are so turned inward, and will hardly interact with a stranger in public places. I’ve come to accept that to most of the practitioners of the “No-Look Pass”, this is perfectly normal, healthy, respectful and intelligent behaviour. They really THINK that.

Me – I view it as pretty sad that people walk right by other people and don’t acknowledge the encounter with another intelligent, sentient, human being. Even if, in fact, they haven’t encountered another intelligent, sentient, human being. The potential at least exists.

I guess it's a matter of what I grew up accustomed to. In most of the many cities and towns I’ve lived in, the way has been to acknowledge others in some way. No, not everyone does so, and those who do, don’t acknowledge every single human being they glimpse or pass. That would be impossibly inefficient. It would keep you from living. So people in very crowded places – take New York City – develop shortcuts.

New Yorkers are incredibly interactive in public. They check each other out. They glance, peek, stare, pan, scan, look you up and down, sometimes with a sneer or a nod or a wink or a glare, or a dare. New Yorkers see you, and you know you’ve been seen. There’s a bit of a verbal thing going on too. New Yorkers will blurt, snap, bark, yap and curse at you all day long. It often feels unfriendly. Mostly it isn’t. There’s just not a lot of time for niceties, and people have to be thick skinned, and so, its short and sweet. Snap, crackle and pop. But you always feel acknowledged in New York.

It’s not the warmest kind of acknowledgement, true. Doesn’t necessarily make you feel welcome. But why do you need to be welcomed? You’re here, ain’t cha? Fuckin’ center of the whole goddamn universe! What else do you want?

You want somebody to make you feel good? Welcome you to your stay among really nice, smart, well educated, progressive people, who are all into sharing and generosity and giving up their seat on Metro? You need to go to Seattle. You can hardly walk past anyone in Seattle without them wishing you a good day and smiling at you. If this is new behaviour for you, it may cause you to frantically go through your mental roll-o-dex, trying to figure out why you’re drawing a total blank on this person who obviously knows you from way back, and there’s no way you shouldn’t know their name. But no, it’s not that at all. Seattlites, who are hardly ever from Seattle, by the way, feel like this is how you should treat everyone. They are unfailingly polite. Lots of smiles and nods, please and thanks.

And in Raleigh, North Carolina, they go beyond polite, and are downright friendly to strangers. You stand in a line, or ride up in an elevator with somebody, you’re liable to have a dinner invitation or to have joined a bowling league by the time you negotiate the trip.

It’s not like I’m a social dynamo, myself. I’m on the quiet, keep-it-to-myself side. But I can nod and smile and say “Hey” alright, and I like to do so. Living here, it’s mostly been squashed out of me. Because, yes, I’m shaped by my social environment. It’s harder to give a generous smile to strangers here. There’s the whole cultural expectation you’re up against, the lack of response, the deafening silence in those elevators, the stiffening of bodies, the intake of breath. People don’t take the openness and friendliness so well here. They probably handle it better when they’re in New York or Seattle – some may even get into the spirit of the place, and open up themselves.

But In Toronto, for the greater part, it seems that people are trying to avoid noticing each other. Hardly anybody nods, says hello, smiles or anything else. Casual greetings hardly ever happen, and are ignored when received. Even people who see one another all the time, at the same bus stop, or in line at the grocery, are extremely slow to breach the barrier of not having ever been introduced. And it’s not that people exchange that shy glance that says, “Hi. I see you over there, and I know we’ve seen each other, but hey, we don’t have to push it and actually speak yet.... Maybe next time.” No, here in Toronto, it’s more often a reaction that says: “I refuse to have it even appear that my eyes react normally to a large body entering my field of vision.” People walk right by one another on Toronto streets without so much of a flicker of awareness. It’s Magic Johnson’s No Look Pass” perfected. And it’s equally deceptive and as potentially devastating.

It isn’t that Torontonians are genuinely cold. We just seem to require an excuse to reach beyond ourselves and connect. When there’s a reason, a duty, it’s reassuring how often people come through. Like today, when I dropped my eyeglasses in the street, and two separate individuals called my attention to it. Or last week, when a concerned person started up a conversation about a homeless man who’d spoken to both of us. Not always, though. I was once witness to part of a sequence in which a man had a bladder failure and accidently urinated on a streetcar seat. He fled the crowded streetcar, shortly after which another passenger took the seat. When another seat opened up, the passenger who had just sat down on a urine-soaked seat, simply got up and took a second seat. He, like the original urinator, mentioned nothing about the hazard and stood by while a third person sat in this same seat. There are several other cities – some already mentioned – in which I can’t imagine this happening in near total silence among passengers, who were mostly content to act as though totally unaware of what was transpiring.

There’s a deep timidity in this city that keeps us more disconnected than we might be. In some ways, I expect that the broad sweep of ethnicities and cultures gives us allowance to exaggerate out differences and therefore keep apart. Or perhaps it does reflect a lingering aspect of a British-colonial culture that’s often cited for its reserve. Whatever the cause of it, I wish it would go away.

Since moving to Toronto, I’ve visited both Montreal and Paris, cities I’d been warned were marked by rudeness. But my experience didn’t support that at all. In both cities, I found people to be approachable and helpful, and there seemed to be no great barrier between people. But that could be more a reflection of the experience of travelling beyond ones known world. I’ve had a number of first time visitors to Toronto remark on how friendly and helpful its people are. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

In any case, I resolve from time to time, that I’ll get back into the habit of greeting, smiling and nodding to people, regardless of whether I meet with reciprocity. I usually manage for a while, but then slip back into ways that have become too natural to me. I’m reminded though, of an experience I had that made a strong impression on me.

When I started working with a Housing Program two years ago, my original assignment was to walk the streets, engaging and enrolling the homeless to our services. A number of times, homeless individuals approached me and initiated a conversation merely because I held their gaze and smiled at them. Imagine what it must be like to spend hours every day on the sidewalks and in the malls and parks, and to have hundreds of people walk by and look right through you, as though they didn’t see you, as though you didn’t even exist.

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