A couple of weeks ago I was walking down the street when I heard someone call out and say “Hey! Good evening! Have a blessed night!” I smiled at him and said “thank you!” As I passed him, he paused for a second and sincerely said, “Thank you for replying, miss”
You know those moments when it feels like everything has stopped moving around you and all there is, is you in that moment? At this point, I was still walking, but I stopped and turned around. I looked at him and thought, This guy is thanking me for acknowledging him?!
It was one of those moments where I needed a moment to think about what had just happened. He wasn’t holding a cup or begging for money. He also didn’t look like he was that well, but he was just a human being standing on the corner of the street telling people to have a good night. It was a busy Friday evening and there must have been over two hundred people who had passed him in the span of the time he was standing there. As far as I saw, most people were walking past him.
Yes, I know Philadelphia is a place, much like most big cities, where women are catcalled multiple times a day. Through time, we are almost sensitized to ignore any form of calling out that comes our way. I don’t blame them because I’ve been one of those women and still am.
I think the issue that I’m trying to acknowledge lies beyond catcalling and this man who was sincerely touched by the fact that someone acknowledged him. This issue is broader and affects us all. Our lives work faster than our brains can process and we have lost the practice of empathy and compassion. We put our to-dos above presence, connection, and communication with each other, often when it's needed most.
I was recently flipping through Entrepreneur magazine while I was at a cousin’s house in Chicago. As I was flipping through, I landed on an advertisement for receptionists. In pretty cursive writing the ad read, “The Lost Art of Human Interaction”. Initially, I thought it was the beginning of an article, much like this one you’re reading right now. However, I quickly realized it was an agency that helps companies hire receptionists. Our businesses are catching up with the importance of human interaction, then why aren’t we as humans? Why are we disconnected from each other, but believe in connections for the sake of monetization?
I began to question when it was that we got to the point of monetizing human interaction. Was it with the evolution of technology or was it far before that? Businesses are rapidly starting to progress and understand the impact of relationship building inside and outside of the office, but isn’t this something that dates back to the beginning of human existence? It’s been the core of our survival since day 1, but businesses are only now starting to understand how it translates into all aspects of their work.
I’m not saying technology is bad nor am I saying these businesses are bad either. I think the beauty of now is that we live in an interconnected world and can connect with almost anyone with the push of a button. This can only make our businesses stronger and our economies stronger. However, I often feel an urge to ask myself Is that really what our world needs? Will that make the situation worse or better?
I don’t think our ability to connect is lost. If anything, I believe we have an even greater ability to connect. I think our capacity to connect is being utilized now more than ever, but our ability to engage with one another is at a loss. The problem isn’t businesses learning to connect with consumers, it is humans disconnecting from humans in having authentic, vulnerable relationships with each other.
Our deep voids are filled with streaming videos or scrolling through our newsfeeds, peaking into the life of someone else. We choose to immerse ourselves into an illusion, a life we could have filled we things we could have, creating false hopes while we could be looking at the abundance of what we already do have.
I believe I did that for a long time. I ignored the close relationships around me and replaced them for material ones. I unconsciously created a barrier between myself and the people who meant the most to me. It was a short period of my life, but I exited that period learning that those relationships and the communities I am a part of are the greatest form of wealth that any human can have.
I recently read an article titled, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? The article takes us through the aftermath of the death of Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy playmate and B-movie star who lay dead in her home for over a year. Her last years of life were spent interacting with fans and individuals she had met over the internet rather than interacting with friends or family members.
The story of Vickers goes far deeper than the thousands of Facebook shares and retweets her death got as a response on social media. Yes, it’s sad, but that’s what all those retweeters and sharers also thought.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? We’re connected, yet so disconnected at the same time. Our image of loneliness no longer is the image of a man or woman sitting by themselves eating a heated up frozen dinner on their Lay Z Boy in front of the TV. It’s become redefined. It’s become younger, a little more polished and maybe even a little more accepted in the society we’re living in today.
It’s the image of people staring down at their smart phones walking through busy city streets or the millennial sitting behind a glowing screen with 10 chat boxes open.
Our connected world is a gift, but we’ve used this gift to further ourselves from having vulnerable and authentic relationships. One day my father and I were talking about the differences of western society as opposed to the community, collectivistic culture we find in eastern countries. As we were discussing, my father said, “It is not a have not problem, it is a have problem”. During the two hours of discussion, we spoke about his experiences growing up poor in a small village with no shoes on his feet and a feeling of helplessness. He didn’t think he would get out. He didn’t know there was a way out. “We were unhappy as kids because we didn’t have money, but when we got money, we were still unhappy”.
In the past years, I’ve started to realize how disengaged we can be while still being in a world of connectivity. In a world where we seem to have everything, yet feel like we need more.
Technology is beautiful- it’s allowed me to see almost 30 countries in a couple of years, keep in touch with my parents while I’m an ocean away, meet amazing souls from around the world, and start to build a life I didn’t know I could have. However, I’ve also seen how we have gone so far deep into this world of connectivity, that we have forgotten how to communicate like our ancestors once did when there was no IPhone, computer, or TV.
Civilizations have only survived because of human interaction. Pure human interaction where people are actually speaking to each other face to face, connecting through the heart, supporting one another, and spending quality time with each other.
Since my return to the United States, I’ve been challenging myself to connect with as many people as I can in different settings. Coming from a place where there were so many interactions on a day to day basis, I struggled to keep that going once I came here. As I try to connect with myself on a deeper level, I’ve also been trying to connect with the environments around me.
It doesn’t have to be a long interaction, but it can be a simple smile and ‘hello’. It can be those little things that can yield unexpected outcomes, but have the potential to achieve great results over time.
Some of my hardest moments to connect have been on the subway. I’ve made it a practice to try to put my phone away, take my headphones out, and just be as I ride the subway. A few days ago, I found myself doing just that. As I looked out into the subway car, almost everyone was looking down at their phones. Amongst the crowd of students, 9-5’ers coming home from work, or other Philadelphia residents, I saw a man and a woman, probably around their 50’s, having a very animated conversation close to one of the doors. They looked to be long lost friends, laughing and smiling as they talked about their families. I looked out into the subway car and imagined a subway car where everyone was having a deep, animated conversation like that. A conversation where everyone was able to deeply look into the other person’s eyes, be fully present, and just listen. An interaction that could instantly cure loneliness with a simple smile or ‘hello, how are you?’. What would that look like?