Lately, I’ve been noticing something in recent years that maybe you’ve noticed as well.
We don’t hello to each other in the streets as we once did.
Perhaps it’s a small thing; easily dismissed in an age of distraction and (often) manufactured problems. It is nonetheless disturbingly telling.
For the better part of a decade, I’ve been taking a couple of walks during my workday.
I work in downtown Redmond, in Washington State, which is home to Microsoft and a host of other tech companies.
During my 20-minute walks, I see quite a few folks who exercise, walk dogs, bike, wait for the bus, walk for pleasure, or are just trying to get from Point A to Point B.
I like to think of myself as being conscientious, so I generally look at people when I’m walking by. Sometimes I’ll say hello or ask them how they’re doing.
People rarely make eye contact with me as I pass them — and they rarely greet me.
As I pass them in silence, I sense a missed opportunity to connect with another human being. Even six or seven years ago, I felt the same thing when I rode buses to and from work daily.
The chatter of people talking and the sight of people reading books or magazines steadily gave way to the collective silence of heads looking down at smartphones and tablets.
So what gives?
When did we stop greeting each other in the street, or conversing with one another on the bus? I know there are many factors influencing this aspect of modern life, inclusive of COVID-19, but if I had to guess, I’d say this phenomenon kicked into higher gear around 2007, the year Apple debuted the iPhone.
“Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone,” said CEO Steve Jobs in his announcement that year. ” . . . iPhone is like having your life in your pocket. It’s the ultimate digital device.”
The result was the smartphone, which has done more than just reinvent the phone.
They’ve largely reinvented how we interact with one another here at home — and globally.
In her book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” Sherry Turkle points out that connectivity technologies once promised to give us more time. “But as the cellphone and smartphone eroded the boundaries between work and leisure, all the time in the world was not enough.”
Amid the pandemic, U.S. adults increased their time on digital activities across all devices by another hour to just under eight hours a day, with over three of those hours on smartphones.
Perhaps even more concerning than the amount of time we’re spending on screens is that this virtual screen time is becoming an acceptable substitute for real-life, face-to-face interactions.
As Turkle points out, technology can make us forget what we know about life.
As we get used to virtual interactions and the convenience of having our life in our pockets, we look for ways to make the real world more “friction free.” Greeting a stranger or starting a conversation involves friction. It means being fully present in the real world.
It requires us to be brave and awkward, spontaneous and vulnerable.
It’s much easier to say nothing and look in the other direction.
Friends, we need each other now more than ever in our lifetimes.
The pandemic, along with the recent political and social turmoil of the last few years, have left all of us increasingly lonely, burdened, and more in need of positive social interaction and intimacy.
Greeting others verbally in public spaces, and when possible using their names, is a small thing. Yet, it can be a catalyst for change, an inspiration to persevere, a reminder of personal worth, an encouragement for the weary.
In short, a simple hello and the words that may follow can change the course of a day or even a life. Don’t wait for someone else to do it.
Make a concerted effort to show yourself as friendly.
Make eye contact, smile, say hello. And as you go through your day, keep the wise words of first century philosopher Philo of Alexandria in mind: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”