The Human Relations Paradox
Imagine that you are a scientist doing research in the Kalahari desert. You have been told there are probably no other humans around for hundreds of miles. Suddenly, a glint of reflected sunlight catches your eye. It seems to have come from several miles away.
You grab your binoculars and check it out. It appears to be a person walking towards you. When the person gets close enough you wave to get their attention. They wave back. Twenty minutes later he is within hearing distance and you yell “Hello” and “Welcome” hoping he understands. He yells back “Hello” and you both smile broadly.
You leave your campsite and walk toward him so you can greet him a few minutes sooner. When you meet you spontaneously shake hands and hold the clasp after the shaking stops. You exchange names and backgrounds. Later, back in your camp, you share lunch and exchange small gifts and email addresses so you can stay in touch. You have made a friend you hope to have the rest of your life.
Now imagine yourself on a crowded commuter train. The hundreds of people on your car read newspapers and listen to MP3 players while expertly avoiding eye contact. You don’t notice that the person you are pressed against has a bandage over her left eye. You don’t notice that one of the texts she received made her smile. It never occurs to you that the last human voice you heard was the previous day when you were listening to the evening news.
Why this contrast? Why do we treat each other so differently when we are packed together?
I think the answer is that we have to. We brush by thousands of people every day and simply can’t interact with all of them like the two people in the Kalahari interacted. There isn’t enough time and we don’t have good enough memories. We have had to de-humanize each other in order to just do simple things like get to work on time.
The good news is, this de-humanization is a fragile bubble that we can burst any time we want to. Inside that fragile, impersonal bubble lies the warm and friendly instincts exhibited by the strangers in my desert story.
In my next post I’ll explore how we do that. Stay tuned.