Life in Anchorage (and in Alaska, and in America, and most definitely beyond) is a bizarre experiment in double standards.
How many times has an identical or similar scenario greeted you on any given day: You’re at an animal hospital, or the doctor’s office, or the DMV, bogged down in the eternal waiting period that is life-before-being-attended-to – waiting for a professional to assist you in whatever brought you to wherever you happen to be. A stranger plops down in the seat next to you. Sometimes there’s the appropriate buffer zone of an empty seat or two; other times, situations mandate that your unintended guest sits uncomfortably close, in the inches next to your person.
No one speaks at first. That would be awkward, right? We bury ourselves in our iPhones and looks of disengagement, trying to keep to ourselves. Surely, this round of “Words with Friends” with someone on another continent will dissuade this person who I live in a community with to leave me alone. And for good reason, of which I’m completely unaware.
But then something causes that separation to break down. Maybe it’s a television show catching both you and your guest’s attentions at just the right moment. Maybe someone says something at the front desk that you both find hilarious, allowing for a shared moment of mutual appreciation of humor.
Whatever it is, it causes you to acknowledge the person next to you. And, after an awkward sentence or two, compounded by the inevitable waiting periods that plague us at every corner while waiting for customer service, a conversation takes hold like sparked kindling.
Turns out, when we talk to each other without resumes and ideologies stapled to our foreheads or emblazoned on our sleeves, we tend to like one another. We all live interesting lives couched in common experiences and values. Especially in Anchorage, where we’re all neighbors, whether or not we choose to recognize it.
The conversations that ensue are chicken soup for the soul. No Oprah needed. With such busy lives, often complete with instructions on what kind of person to talk to or avoid, the unintended conversation with a stranger feels almost like cheating. Who is this person? Should I even be talking to them? I don’t know anything about them! We’re not even friends on Facebook!
But, in application, we end up engaged in a discourse usually far more open and honest than the careful scripts we plot out for ourselves online; subject to the careful scrutiny applied by our more observant and critical network friends. We don’t get into specifics with the public stranger, but instead enjoy the liberated feeling of being able to talk about random, superficial topics – idiot drivers’ habits, bad jobs, or (the catch all) stories about our pets.
Conversations that might have seemed the norm before social media feel like a strange return to a Rousseauian nature state – a way to identify with each other without having to submit to a litmus test of figuring out if we approve of enough of a person’s views to enlist in dialog.
But when we carry those conversations outside of their freak public occurrences, and bring them into Facebook or Twitter, the ecology breaks down violently. A single comment that strays from the magical, serene conversation that took place with that stranger turned compatriot in the privacy of the public square, can turn violent in the public square of a private network of online friends. Social media is quickly becoming an intensified, unintended purity test, and is separating us from our inclination to warmly welcome those brief conversations with people we meet while waiting in lines, who might otherwise be cast off as online enemies.
Part of that speaks to the unfolding perils of social media. Where segregation was rooted out in the public sphere, it is reemerging in the private, online arena. Forget the back of the bus; we don’t have to be on the same road as people we disagree (or are told to disagree) with online. While we enjoy linked articles from long lost high school friends, the actuality is that in many ways it’s a more frightening absolutist form of segregation. Echo chambers. Purity of thought. Self imposed totalitarian discourse.
But reality persists, much to the chagrin of those who have become comfortable trolling from the comforts of their keyboards, but are perplexed by the idea of cohabitation of the world outside the doors of their abodes. That coexistent conversation still exists, in the doctor’s offices and animal clinics and DMV offices of the country. A strange and undefined tension between the online acceptance of self segregation is at odds with our human, dire need to talk to each other.
We seem trained into comfort with disparaging those we have decided (or someone else has decided and we have adopted the view that they) are different than us. Different in an unacceptable way. Different in an way that compromises our own self image. Different in a way that we blindly will vote against, sport bumper stickers denigrating, parrot talk shows’ abhorrence of. And yet, differences that we couldn’t, for the life of us, recognize in those rare visits where we are forced into a situation of commonality; when we end up innocently and honestly enjoying each others’ company.
Those times you’re stuck waiting with your sick dog or cat in the waiting room watching Meerkat Manor with a stranger; those times when you find yourself laughing with someone at the DMV while some idiot loses his head over a parking ticket; those moments bonding momentarily over common work experiences or relationship woes: You didn’t ask. But you had a conversation with someone who was a Democrat. You talked to a Republican. You shared your heart with a “teabagger” and a “99% hippy.” One of them was gay. One was a mormon. Or both. And a couple were probably here illegally.
And, yet, you had a great conversation. You probably even spent a couple minutes on the drive home thinking about it; got home and mentioned it listlessly to your spouse. Just like I have.
We really are all in this together. We need to start rejecting the Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags that divide us; the talk shows and cable networks that capitalize off of it; the politicians who depend on us mindlessly hating the other team to consolidate support and campaign contributions.
Next time you’re stuck somewhere and someone “strange” sits down next to you, maybe shut down “Angry Birds” and say hello. Open up. Lighten up. Appreciate the conversation, as we all do… But, afterward, take a moment to reflect and appreciate the individual, and entertain the idea – even if just for a moment – that behind everything we’ve been trained to object to, to hate, to reject on principle or religion or politics… There’s a person underneath. And you just had a nice conversation with that person.
Maybe you have disagreements. Maybe you should continue the conversation. Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of developing relationships with people who might fundamentally disagree with us on certain issues. Maybe humanity is about giving enough of a shit about each other that we reserve the right to openly challenge each other’s positions, and fight for the better argument to become policy. Maybe our future going forward doesn’t rely on anonymous comments on ADN articles and instead depends, inalienably, on our ability to look each other in the eye, learn how to talk to each other, learn how to find common ground, and grow the hell up.