Rachel del Valle | On civil indifference
Duly Noted | Apathy may be the norm but why shouldn't we ignore it and be nice?
April 9, 2012, 12:14 am · Updated April 11, 2012, 12:14 am·
Rachel del Valle
Lately, I’ve taken to smiling. It’s not because I’ve fallen in love or won the lottery or found out the tumor’s benign.
I’ve just realized there isn’t any reason not to smile. A calculatedly apathetic glance takes just as much energy as a “good morning” to the person behind a front desk.
I’m by no means a people person. But that doesn’t mean I have to be impolite.
I’m not talking about the kind of smug, gratuitous civility that makes people say, “bless you” across a crowded room. I just mean natural niceties.
A thank you to the CVS employee for help with the testy self-checkout machine. A glance of appreciation to the professor who has just spent an hour making you smarter.
Most people, myself included, have a tendency to forget that others are more than just the props in certain parts of our day. They have dimensions, they have lives and offering some bit of recognition takes little to no effort.
That sounds big and self-righteous, but it’s really not. At least, I don’t mean it to be.
We all have frizzy-haired, caffeine-deficient days where politeness falls by the wayside. But on the days we can help it, why not be nicer? I know, I know, I’m veering towards preachiness. But seriously, why not?
Karma may be overrated, but kindness never is.
I’m not suggesting you fake it. Don’t be nice just for the sake of being nice — or worse, so that other people will think you’re nice.
But if you feel like it, offer a security guard, a classmate, an elevator passenger, a smile or a glance. Ignoring them just because it’s expected is stupid.
Back in the 19th century, with the onset of modernity, new urbanites didn’t know how to deal with the paradoxical intimacy and isolation of city life. Well-meaning etiquette writers advised avoiding eye contact, equating understatedness with respectability.
For men, keeping one’s appearance low-key was the goal, lest you be called a “dandy,” basically the Gilded Age equivalent of an overdressed hipster. For women, attracting too much attention would get you mistaken for a prostitute.
I think it’s safe to say that mode of thinking has gone out of style. In the 21st century, people like to be seen, but they still pretend that they don’t like to look.
This norm of feigned apathy is what allows people to act like they don’t have time to be kind.
Today, we have earbuds and even eyeglasses like Google’s Project Glass “augmented reality glasses,” whose prototype was released last week, to insulate us.
The glasses project a voice-activated display screen that hovers in front of your eyes, allowing you to communicate and search for information.
My steady childhood diet of dystopian sci-fi movies tells me that the world Google envisions with its new glasses is pretty bleak. I didn’t think technology could make people even more detached from their surroundings.
Can an “augmented reality” ever compare to the nakedness of walking down the street and looking at faces instead of phone screens?
I tend to stare. Just long enough that it’s not uncomfortable (as far as I can tell). I like to see what people are wearing. I like to note the way people hold themselves. I like to imagine where they’re going. I’m unabashedly curious — or, by Victorian standards, a bit forward. I’m content with that.
People are people, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that. I wouldn’t suggest that you openly gape at passersby, issue catcalls, follow people home. Please, don’t do any of those things. That would be weird.
But don’t be afraid to notice people. Ignorance might be easier, especially with headphones and iPhones and Ray Bans — but it’s also empty. One of the best things about living in a city is the stream of images it offers you on a daily basis. Why block them out to check your texts?
Don’t use the habit of indifference as an excuse to be rude. There’s a careful balance between civility and strangeness, but as long as you’re not a robot, it’s not hard to gauge.
If you don’t feel like taking someone’s flyer, looking straight ahead and pretending they’re not there is probably not the best way to decline their offer. Just say no thanks. Making eye contact isn’t going to make you late for class.
Rachel del Valle is a College sophomore from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Duly Noted appears every Monday.