Musings From a Return to the States
We landed in San Francisco on the eve of Thanksgiving. The first interactions I had that night were pleasant enough. The Uber driver was friendly and informative, and reception at our hostel was accommodating.
After check-in, I legally smoked a bit of weed with one of the kindred souls staying at the hostel, a young man from Spain, before my travel companion and I walked to Trader Joe's to buy food to snack on that night, and for Thanksgiving dinner the following day. During this excursion is when the cultural differences between the States and Latin America – where I had been living for the previous six months – became much more apparent.
The first thing I noticed walking the street was the demeanor of the passersby. In addition to how briskly they walked in relation to people on the street in Latin America, they seemed to be much more isolated and socially awkward. If they weren't "plugged-in," with eyes glued to their phone screens about to cause a collision with oncoming traffic, they were looking down at the ground, not sure what to do with their gaze, especially if we had briefly made eye contact.
Granted, San Francisco may be ground zero for this type of socially-awkward, isolated by-way-of-technology behavior, but from my recollection, the conduct of the people didn't seem to be too dissimilar from Chicago before I left in May for Latin America.
In Mexico and in Colombia, social awkwardness from those I passed seemed to be more of an effect from the differences in complexion, and perceived differences in culture. As soon as I wished the particular individual a "buen día", the tension seemed to release, and their guard dropped.
I think in most cases, this auto-generated defense arises from previous interactions in similar instances with "gringos," who most commonly conduct themselves as they would in their own Anglo-Saxon country, stuck in their own egotistic little world without respect or curiosity for the local culture and customs.
Sadly, this conduct was exactly what I experienced the next day, Thanksgiving day, while walking the San Francisco streets. The first thing that became apparent was how rapidly the crowds of people were moving. The pace was a brisk run-walk, with a definite sense of urgency. A drastic departure from the calles of Latin America, where the inhabitants strolled more leisurely, seeming to take in their surroundings, and really be present in the moment.
In the States, it seems that the always-on-the-go, "on to the next one" thirst for more, more, more mentality permeates everything, even the holiday denoting gratitude and introspection.
It was sad to see the way the homeless – and seemingly mentally-ill – were treated by pedestrians and the police at a downtown Starbucks. Feeling a bit homeless myself as we occupied a table for several hours while killing time before we could check into our hostel later that day, I couldn't help but feel empathetic for the young (30-something) lady who was escorted from the property after multiple verbal outbursts. Not that there was much any particular individual could have done in that instance, but it served as a microcosm of the larger problem, rampant egotism and lack of compassion, that plagues the nation.
In my view, the prevalence of/reliance on technology in the 21st century has diminished the individual's ability and willingness to assert themselves in moments of confrontation or skwirmishness with others in social settings. Smartphones are largely a cop-out for tackling awkwardness head-on.
Instead of calling the police and simply waiting for them to arrive, with the intent of preventing themselves of any potential physical or emotional turmoil arising from confrontation with the woman, the Starbucks patrons could have simply used the "power in numbers" principle to persuade the woman to improve her behavior or else vacate the store.
Rather, the customers opted to remove themselves from the situation entirely, as they refused to make eye contact when the woman engaged them, instead turning to their phones as if the devices had the ability to make the user suddenly go deaf. Ironically, many of them made it apparent they had been cognizant of the situation the whole time when they began Instagramming her escort from the premises after the police had arrived.
Spending some time with my parents – both while on the trip and upon returning back to their house stateside – provided me the same insight. Rather than deal with the underlying issues that led to their constant bickering, most times after dinner they occupy the shared space of the living room together, but isolate themselves with their devices in order to bypass any emotional exhaustion caused by mediation.
I'm not sure if this is a function of narcissism or egotism, but it certainly is a function of "connected" societies, which the US is – by many metrics – at the forefront of. And if this is what a "global" world looks like, I'm going to continue to spend my time in "underdeveloped" countries for as long as they remain that way. Countries in which the inhabitants cherish their face-to-face interpersonal interactions, and don't take the easy way out by opting for their screen.