If you live in a city of size, you do not smile at strangers. This social code is unwritten, but, like most rules, it serves a purpose. Not smiling — not engaging — protects us city dwellers from each other. It’s the best way to avoid contact with crazy, loquacious, or predatorial people. The concept is not generational. When my father, who’s spent most of his life in the Midwest, came to visit New York in the 1980s, he smiled at a hotdog vendor on a walk in Central Park. The vendor pointed straight at him and boomed: What small town are you from!? He didn’t know the rules.
The point is, many people in large cities work hard to avoid eye contact and interaction with strangers on a daily basis. They’re surrounded by people, yet they avoid them at all costs. You could call this dissociating, avoidance, or just being an asshole. Jennifer Silvershein, a therapist who runs Manhattan Wellness, says New Yorkers don’t avoid each other because they’re brash, but rather to protect themselves from the harsh realities of city life — particularly if they’re women.
Many of us put on headphones or stick our noses in books on the subway to block out unwanted advances. We’re putting up physical “do not disturb” signs in the hopes that people will adhere to them — which they don’t always do. “When women are walking around New York [or other big cities], they often experience catcalls or see other sad things,” Silvershein says. “Women zone out while walking because if we saw and absorbed everything around us, it would be really hard to function.” In other words: It’s not personal, it’s self-preservation.
But, if you move to the city from a small town like me, avoiding the urge to smile and nod at everyone you pass on the street like you just walked off a plane from Iowa is something you have to learn. Luckily, I’m a quick study, and it didn’t take long to understand that avoiding the other 8.6 million strangers in New York is a good idea. If men approach me when I’m walking alone, I’m as skittish as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers, as the small town colloquialism goes. I was like this until last month, when I went on a mission to understand why people who live in cities keep to themselves. I ride the 6 train — which runs from downtown Manhattan, through the city, and into the Bronx — every morning. Almost everyone riding with me is on their phone, trying to avoid human interaction like Pac-Man avoids ghosts. Myself included. I wanted to know why. I wondered if we were missing things when we’re plugged in and zoned out.
So I unplugged for a week, staying alert and open to communication in the city. I jotted down my observations. Without the protection from my headphones, I heard people yell at each other in the street. I heard the catcalls and kissing sounds. At one point, a man came up to me on the subway and started talking to me about Russia, in a fairly convoluted and nonsensical way. He was holding a pharmacy gift bag with pink roses on it. As he talked to me (okay, at me) he folded up the gift bag and set it on the subway floor. It was puzzling and troubling — and not just because of the litter. I missed my headphones and having a book to hide behind. I missed being disconnected.
Silvershein says when we dissociate in cities, we’re choosing to place our focus on things that won’t bring us down. We’re choosing an easier way of life. “We're focusing on what makes us feel good, and quieting the things that bring us stress and discomfort,” Silvershein explains. “You can see the dog shit on the street or the daisy blooming next to the tree,” she continues. “It’s making the choice of where we focus.”
So, although people who live in the city get a bad rap for being rude to strangers, Silvershein says they’re just prioritizing their own mental health. We’re coping with our wild, crowded surroundings in the best way we know how. We’re attempting to soothe our own worries.
Dr. Colin Ellard, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada, says one of the reasons city folks might be more likely to dissociate has to do with anxiety. “Things that happen in urban environments could lead to poorly regulated emotions,” he explains. “These are the effects of crowding and noise — all of the things that come with living somewhere with millions of people.”
Yet, here we are, living on top of each other, trying to achieve our dreams in the concrete jungle.
There’s also a large-scale way to examine why people in cities are the way they are. Dr. Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, says, on an unconscious level, we’re all just trying to cope with the fact that we were never meant to congregate in cities in the first place. Yet, here we are, living on top of each other, trying to achieve our dreams in the concrete jungle. Geher studies evolutionary psychology, and says that for most of human history, we were living in small, nomadic groups that likely weren’t larger that 150 people. “Up until about 10,000 years ago, when agriculture took hold, humans were evolving to have social connections in smaller groups, and life today in big cities doesn’t match those historical conditions,” Geher explains. “Being surrounded by a high proportion of strangers is unnatural to the human mind historically.” Geher notes that some studies have shown that people in larger cities have a tendency to struggle with mental health more frequently than those in smaller towns.“We’re fighting evolutionary mismatch, so it’s not surprising [that we struggle],” he says.
And, to make matters worse, we’re fighting this “evolutionary mismatch” with technology that wasn't part of human evolution — apps, headphones, podcasts. This might be contributing to a “crisis of loneliness” in cities Ellard says.
But, maybe, there are still some relationships that save us from the loneliness we’re bringing upon ourselves with our Beats and emotional barriers.
“[Some] evidence suggests that, while it’s very important to maintain mental health in an urban setting — which could mean using your earbuds to block out noise — shallow relationships are important,” Ellard says. “They’re something you’re losing if you’re plugged into your headphones,” he continues. You’re missing the casual nod or greeting from someone you recognize, say a barista who might remember you and your latte order. “Those kinds of ‘shallow’ relationships [with acquaintances] may be more important than we supposed they were,” Ellard explains. And those are the relationships you’re missing if you’re not embracing the world. You avoid interaction to keep yourself safe and sane, but that avoidance might be impacting your mental health and stopping you from connecting with the world.
You avoid interaction to keep yourself safe and sane, but that avoidance might be impacting your mental health and stopping you from connecting with the world.
Ellard asked about the good things that happened to me during my week of alertness. I had to wrack my brain. I went back to my scribbled notes. "Dude whistles at me as I walk to the subway and I hate him." "Man wearing cross necklace skips turn style — irony?" The notes were pessimistic and bleak. A few days later, it hit me that I had fostered one “shallow relationship” with the man who works the front desk in my office building.
I’ve always said hello to him, but when I ditched my headphones for a week, I made more of an effort to chat with him. I officially introduced myself, and now we have nice morning chats about the weather and our weekends. Sometimes we high five as I walk past him to the elevator, and it’s an added dose of positivity to every commute.
Although I’m going to continue to unapologetically dissociate as I walk around New York after this experience, I’ll always make more time to interact with and say hello to the people I see daily who might seem like strangers, but aren’t at all. In the midst of the catcalls and broken humanity that make up the city, I’ll look for the bright spots. As Silvershein put it: I’ll be open to the daisies, and ignore the dog shit.