Thursday, June 20, 2013

Every Interaction Is A Social Interaction

What if we considered every interaction with another human being a social one? I was just thinking about how weird it is that the definition of my “social life” is purely the individuals that I choose to interact with, when and where I choose to do so.

This is how most people define social life, but it’s pretty arbitrary. What if we thought of social life as the parts of our lives when we are around others, period?

Considered this way, my usual confidence in the robustness of my social life falls flat. I realize for most of my day, I pretty consciously ignore people. I live in New Orleans, and my travels have shown me that there is perhaps no other city that can boast the same level of friendliness to strangers. It’s hard to take a walk without someone looking you in the eye and asking you about your day. I love this about my city and try to adopt the practice as much as I can, but even in a place that embraces neighborly interaction, I still fall short. I may say hi, how are you, I may even ask you about your garden or your dog or your work, but can I actually say you are my friend?

Not to mention when I have something that I need to get done, and a timeline to complete it in. Then, just about all of my effort at some kind of social exchange can fall to the wayside as my world closes in upon the task that needs to get done. Any external attempts by others to engage me socially I will very consciously thwart.

Day in and day out, I am not really looking to make friends except in circumstances that I have deemed acceptable times and places where friends can be made. If you are introduced to me by someone I already trust, perhaps we’ll connect and maybe after repeated meetings become friends. If I am near you at a party or a bar and we have a conversation that I feel comfortable with, maybe I will be friendly towards you if I see you again. Maybe if your work or some other activity you do is related to mine there is more of a chance that I’ll make an effort to connect with you. But maybe not.

I think I started realizing the narrowness of my own social life after spending weeks at Occupy NOLA last year. Suddenly I was in a diverse environment that spanned the spectrum of privileged organizers like me to people without homes who lived under the CCC bridge, and the real kicker was--we were all suppose to reach some kind of consensus about what we wanted the place to be like. Even though 20% of people in my state don’t have a high school diploma, I didn’t actually know anyone personally who didn’t have one. Compared with the make up of the city, I realized the make up of my friend group was way off in terms of race, income level, and many other factors.

I figured out one reason I don’t have a lot of these folks in my social circles: it’s hard. It’s hard to have genuine interactions with people when societal structures have made it so you meet each other on unequal terms. When you have money and someone else doesn’t, it's easy for you to feel taken advantage of, or just feel guilty about your own privilege, or be condescending. When you don't have money and someone else does, it's easy to feel resentful, disdainful, or just plain uncomfortable. When you’re educated and someone else isn’t, it takes effort honestly listen and respect the other person's ideas as equal to your own. Roles reversed, it's easy to feel intimidated and like your ideas don't matter.   When you’re from a privileged group and someone else has to deal with the daily reality of racism or discrimination, it’s easy for both parties to get offended, angry, and feel diminished as individuals.  

Beyond the social, it's just plain scary to trust people that are different than us. It isn't a pretty thing about humans, but it's true. Fear motivates so much of the disconnection we feel amongst ourselves. It is scary and vulnerable to trust.

So that’s probably why most people hang out with other people that are mostly like them. It’s a lot easier. It makes it easier to not worry about the social problems that surround us, it makes it easier to feel like there’s a big fat difference between people like you and everyone else. It makes it easier to feel confirmed and safe. It provides an atmosphere where you can feel confirmed in your own opinions, judgments, and ideas about how the world is and how you fit in it. Often these are the very ideas that form the bedrock of our own identities, and to be in social situations that challenge them are extremely uncomfortable. 

At the same time, for many people the bedrock of their identities is the social lives they have cultivated. We come to understand who we are through our connections with other people. But if we expand the definition of social life to include all of our interactions with other people, how often are we judgmental, dismissive, impatient, or downright abrasive? How often do we deny others the benefit of the doubt, how often do we refrain from showing kindness when we have the opportunity to do so? How often do we just straight up ignore the humanity of people around us because of our need to complete daily tasks or just because we don't feel up to it? 

If every interaction is a social interaction, how great are our social lives, really? And thus, what kind of people are we?