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Human Interaction Up Close and Impersonal

When I leave my building in the morning and walk down the street, I pass at least one person every 4-5 feet. Usually, the person passing either does not make eye contact at all, or does out of the corner of her or his eyes, makes no facial expression indicating that they have seen me, and continues on their way. Sometimes, they make brief eye contact, and look away. Sometimes, they make eye contact and hesitate for a nanosecond, waiting to see if I will acknowledge that I have seen them too.

My office building is a lovely, mid-sized building, with many small business owners of varying persuasions and professions as tenants. Each day, I get on an elevator in my office building to go up to my office, which is on the 18th floor. I walk past the security desk, where the guard is looking down to silently read his email on his phone. Often, there is a line of people waiting to get into the one of three elevators available for the trip. The wait is rarely more than 5 minutes. Occasionally, people who know each other say hello while waiting. Otherwise, people stand in silence, furiously scanning their smartphones for messages and texts, or talking to someone on the phone.

Same thing on the elevator. People reach over each other to press the button for the floor they wish to go to. There could be 2 or 15 people on the elevator.  Even when people are packed into the elevator, pressed up against each other, side-by-side, lining the walls of the car, everyone is looking down at their phones, or up at the ceiling monitoring the ascent of the elevator, physically closer than they get to most people, and, not interacting – at all.

I have always found that experience incredibly strange. I imagine that everyone has at least a momentary recognition of that when they are in it. It’s this awkward moment, which is at once very human – you hear and see people, you smell their cologne and other body scents, you bump up against them — and also negating of it. We act as if no one, including ourselves, is there.

 



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Karen Steinberg