How to be in a city

If the Wednesday I experienced this past week had been recorded and edited to play in fast-forward, the theme would be rat treadmill or maybe ant ant-farm or possibly headless chicken before death.

It made me feel the way Michael Douglas’ character feels in Falling Down.

The volume of the day was pummeling: the volume of people on my commutes to and from the office that day; the volume of screaming urgent email waiting at the office; the shrill of the man standing an inch behind me actually YELLING a story to his friend as we stood in line that snaked out door of Caffè Nero just when I’d been thinking afternoon coffee would sort me out.

It was one of those days where other human beings stopped being other human beings.

They became pedestrian obstructions, email pests, noise factories, space hoarders, concentration stealers  — they became inconsiderate creatures crawling all over my  sanity.

I know you know what I’m talking about. I know that even if you live in a hut on a field in a nature preservation, you’ve been there – you’ve served time in the urban jungle. Even if it was only at one of the world’s larger train stations or airports. You know.

The thing that happens inside of us when we feel outnumbered is that we start to feel threatened and we solve for that by de-humanizing the people around us. They become a mass of inconvenience at best, and far worse if we feel hard done by — if we perceive these masses as walking all over us, somehow better than us.

This process of disconnecting from the people (especially the strangers) around us, happens to most city dwellers all day long – we dip in and out of a state of not seeing people but just noticing (in our peripheral vision) the annoyingness of them all.

If it just washes over us whenever we have to squish ourselves onto a tube or wait in LA-style traffic, then it’s not a big deal – just a part of life that we handle better on some days than others. But when this feeling of disconnection sinks deeper into our psyche and becomes our routine lens for looking at the world, we’ve entered the same space that has made it possible for some of us to do unspeakable things to other human beings. This disconnection is in all of us. It’s a form of evil to which any of us can succumb. We’ve known this ever since, in the wake of the Holocaust, psychologists examined what sort of circumstances triggered perfectly normal people to do very bad things. The famous Stanford Prison experiment and Milgram’s obedience test come to mind.

But back to me.

Wednesday was unusual. My days don’t normally run so much interference from the masses. I make sure of that. I know that the toxicity will be immediate and that my work and happiness suffers if I’ve been exposed to too much crushing people-ness around me.

During peak London rush hour I work from home. When I commute to and from the office I don’t go to the station right next to my house which will involve a journey where I have to switch several times through some of London’s busiest platforms, no — I walk a mile or so until I reach a station that zips me to work in one swoop. And I take the scenic route through the leafy streets that remind me how much I like my neighbourhood, how much I enjoy this city.

So Wednesday was my fault. I designed my day badly.

Most people have loads less control over the format of their working days than I do (they’ve little choice regarding what time they need to be where and are forced to commute at the same time as everyone else.)

Most days I get it right and enjoy all the perks of city living (the bookshops, the coffee shops — but also the people … hence the tapas encounter in yesterday’s post) without all the tension that drove Falling Down to it’s inevitable conclusion. But the moral of the story is that it’s hugely important that as many of us as possible do whatever we can do (and yes, sometimes that”ll involve headphones transporting us to a different set of noises) to make our interactions with the masses more neutral.

It leaves everyone with a lot more energy left over to notice the person who needs a seat or who seems lost on the platform and more generous towards people like that nut-job in Caffè Nero on Wednesday who was obviously just in a damn fine mood.



Filed under London, Social psychology

2 responses to “How to be in a city

  1. Working five minutes away from my house – while not good from an exercise point of view – has been brilliant for me in so many ways, not least because it cuts my experience of commuter London down to a bare minimum. I’ve never thought about it before, but perhaps this means I see people more than I did before – as individuals rather than the faceless mass you describe so well.

    Another great post!

  2. Pingback: Walking to work | Panic Station

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