Thursday, August 11, 2005

"Blogging us all senseless"

On the bus this morning, a middle-aged man sitting across from me told me it wouldn't take me so much time to smile. The only appropriate--not to mention honest--response to this request is, "I'd smile if you were hot," but I did not say this. I almost wish I had. I made a point not to smile, as amused as I was by the various come-backs I'd come up with.

There are two kinds of women sleazy men take an interest in: the intimidatingly attractive (models, very tall women who are also good-looking, and celebrities) and those who are attractively unintimidating (petite, young-looking, not-skanky looking). I would have to say I fall in the latter category. OK, really sleazy men take an interest in everything that moves, but I'm talking moderate sleaze.

There are also two kinds of people on public transportation: those who see the bus or subway as a chance to get to know the fellow passengers and those who want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and smoothly as possible.

What happened to me on the bus this morning was that I, an attractively unintimidating woman, attracted the attention of one of those people who thinks he needs to chat with the other people on the bus, the worst possible combination of the aforementioned categories.

What was screwed up about this man asking me to smile, aside from, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the general obnoxiousness of the request, was that he was attempting to make me feel embarassed for not doing something which, had I done it, would have been quite out of the ordinary. No one sitting by him- or herself on a NYC bus smiles. On a bus I took later today, I did a survey of my fellow passengers, and, aside from one who was entertaining small children, the closest I saw to a smiler was a businessman with a pronounced smirk. Asking someone to smile in a small town where people walk around smiling, while still rude, is less of a power grab on the part of the person asking. Had I gotten onto the bus, smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, with a huge grin, I would not have been conforming to societal norms, but rather conforming to the preferences of this one man who, for some bizarre reason, took an interest in my facial expression. The smile wouldn't have been for society, but for him, at him. His request might have made a bit more sense had I looked utterly miserable, but I was very deep in a pre-coffee blank-staring mode, and was transfixed by, I believe, my Metrocard holder.

But back to the fascinating subject of people who see the bus as a mobile social event. Such people may be lonely, or really friendly and outgoing, or just not from New York. Regardless, it is clear that the following letter to the NYT was written by someone who would like to chat with the person across from her on the MTA:

"Alternative to Blogging"

Published: August 9, 2005

To the Editor:

Re your Aug. 5 editorial "Measuring the Blogosphere":

I have a suggestion that would save us all a lot of time and aggravation as we grow increasingly more addicted to modern technology.

It's ridiculously simple really. How about if all those who spend much of their time chattering on their cellphones stow them somewhere, and actually talk to the living, breathing human beings right in front of them? Then maybe they wouldn't have to spend so much time blogging us all senseless.

We'd all be truly communicating, and we'd have more time to truly accomplish something. Or perhaps just enjoy life.

Radical idea? You decide.

Leslie Ruth Hunter
Atlanta, Aug. 5, 2005

What technology has done is allowed us more choice in whom we communicate with and when. Real people and face-to-face contact are not what are threatened by modern technology. The bus-chatters, the random-encounter seekers, have lost out, but the already-existing or intentionally-formed relationships stand to gain. If you're waiting for a bus, you no longer have to chat with the other person at the bus stop about when the bus is coming, what the weather's like, and so on, but have the freedom to call up anyone, anywhere, leaving the "real" person next to you in the dust. This development is Metropolitan Diary's loss, but it's a gain for many others. Of course, for those who wish to speak to their bus-stop cohorts (or to those who happen to be waiting for the bus along with Amanda Peet or Ed Burns or similar), it can be a disappointment that normally out-of-reach types are not, as they were in the pre-cellphone age, easy targets for conversation.

While the NYT letter-writer's tone--not to mention facial-expression-advice from fellow bus passengers--put me off, I'm not sure I think it's so wonderful that people no longer have the random conversations they used to. Just because someone's programmed into your cellphone doesn't mean they're a better conversationalist, or that they have more to offer at that moment, than the strangers right in front of you. I don't really have an answer or an argument here, but maybe one will form in the comments...


Hat said...

I think you're exactly right about the strengthening of established relationships using technology. But having a more insulated social circle is not a boon—it might in fact be a hindrance to everything from life-enjoyment to public discourse. By creating online echo-chambers in the form of blogs that are in the public forum in name only (since they're read only by a relatively small community of people who care enough to trawl them everyday [I'm one of them]), I think we've contributed to the polarization of discourse. In the public forums of antiquity—the city squares, village greens, and the forum of ancient cities—the instantaneous, face-to-face give and take helped enforce a certain amount of rationality and middle-ground seeking. When you're sitting around with a bunch of folks talking things out in person, civility lends credence to your argument. In those communities of thinkers, you have something closer to a negotiation than the "Rethug v. Liberat" smear matches that seem to take place between political blogs. Anyway. So yeah, I think having random conversations with people and being open to exchanging ideas with people other than those in your tight, extant social circle might pay dividends.

Anonymous said...

"What was screwed up about this man asking me to smile..."

What was screwed up about it was that he made you feel annoyed. That's a faulty social encounter.

Personally, I love flirting on the subway. But the whole joy of flirting with strangers is the modulation of the revelation of mutual interest. That slow dance is what makes it fun, and makes it a better time passer than reading.

Without gaining voluntary consent for stepping into the flirtee's consciousness, it's just pure imposition and bad manners. The word for that type of social malfunction is creepiness.

(I don't flirt on buses, but that's because no one you'd want to flirt with rides the bus. (Except perhaps Chloe Sevigny.) For the most part, if you care about style, you'll walk an extra 5 blocks to ride the subway.)


Also, Ed Burns? Seriously? Rent She's the One sometime if you want to end that particular fantasy.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you haven't blogged yet on the girl crush article in the NY times sytle section.

Anonymous said...

Dear Prudence,
How do you respond to someone (a total stranger) who, out of nowhere, tells you to smile—or remarks on the lack of a smile on your face? In the past month I've observed the following incidents. At the checkout line in my grocery store, there was a woman in front of me and a man in front of her. The man looked at the woman, who was not smiling, and said to her, "You must be having a bad day." She mumbled something in reply and gave an apologetic smile. After they left, I heard the two checkout clerks in the area speaking angrily to one another about what had just happened. One of them said indignantly, "What if her mother had just died?!" The other said, "I would have told him, 'My day was fine until you came along!' " And so on. In another instance, a young man next to me at a sandwich shop, while placing his order, said to the young girl behind the counter, "Smile!" She quickly looked down at her work, cringed, and said, "Oh, it's just been a long day, I guess." (That's the kind of response I probably would have made.) Then a few days ago, a male co-worker came into the office, annoyed, and said, "I hate it when people think I'm in a bad mood just because I'm not smiling. I'm not in a bad mood at all." Apparently someone (another total stranger) had said something to him while he was in the parking lot. When it's happened to me, I know I've felt offended. I don't want to be rude, but they're out of line, aren't they? I just would like to know how a person is supposed to respond to these people.

—Smiling When I Feel Like It

Dear Smile,
These commentators are strangers? What's up with that? Prudie thinks a proper response would be nonverbal communication. Something along the lines of knitting your eyebrows together, narrowing your eyes, and making the slightest sneer, all while cocking your head to a 45 degree angle.

—Prudie, huffily

Unknown said...

I second Anonymous number 1. Sink your claws into "Girl Crush". Here's the url: Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

The "smile" command is most annoying, and I used to get it when I was younger. Now that I'm middle-aged (though still "attractively unintimidating" I have become somewhat invisible. As for cell phones vs. in-person conversation, it is strange to see (I work at a university) students walk across campus with phones to their ears, oblivious to their surroundings, as well as to other attractive young people, who are also absorbed in cell phone conversations. I'm waiting for cell phones to go the way of the once ubiquitous Walkman, but it may be a long wait. Blogs, on the other hand are something else and seem to supplement, and deepen, discourse. -- JM

Anonymous said...

Why do you have such problems with smiling silly girl?

Anonymous said...

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Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Not sure how the dating-service ended up in the comments, but it's definitely not WWPD-endorsed...

And some answers:

Nathan-Agreed, more or less. Obviously there are advantages to strengthening existing relationships--what the existing/new balance should be is anyone's guess.

Dylan: You wouldn't find me intimidating if I were a random person across from you on a bus.

Aaron-I'll get on that...