This morning, I was walking to class on my usual route from Niagara through Saratoga to the library for coffee. At 7:30, the place is full to bursting with people, all of whom are either focused on themselves or clustered in groups of twos, threes or fours. Bored and barely awake, I decided to attempt a social experiment.
Of the dozen or so people with whom I made eye contact and said "Hello" to in a cheery manner, I was answered by three, all of whom appeared surprised that someone would go so far as to extend a friendly greeting toward them.
What does this say about today's culture, in America and abroad? Are we so jaded that friendliness and common courtesy have foundered and died? Certainly, a tiding of "Hello" ought not to illicit the response I received, which was often disdain. Why have we become so cold?
Many will point to television and video games and the general desensitizing of our youth culture. I don't think this is the case: these have become catchwords and scapegoats to take the blame for any problem we see in our society. Instead, I propose that the failure of kindness comes from a mutual embarrassment, awkwardness and competition arising from our nation's history and the ideals we hold so dear - most notably our money-is-all ideology.
I have nothing against capitalism; it's been proven to be the most stable economic system on the planet thus far. However, perhaps we lose some of our humanity in a ceaseless quest for more: more money, more property, higher status. Indeed, why do we go to college and collect degrees if not to gain these things? If it were truly about the learning, nobody would ever graduate and we'd all continue in class until we know everything we care to know. Ambition of itself is nothing to be shunned, but perhaps the overzealous enterprising so evident in both corporate America and abroad has led us to the cutthroat world in which we live.
Embarrassment and awkwardness arise, then, from those social norms which say we must compete against each other at all times, for when we lose compassion to competition we are stunned when someone reaches out. To be competitive is to desire nothing for the other party; if this is the case, we lose our desire and ability to be friendly to each other, for friendliness is an ignoring of that ambition which drives us.
I end this unorthodox observation with a plea: Today, wherever you are, turn to someone who you do not know. Say hello, introduce yourself, start a conversation and see what happens (quoting Dane Cook or Family Guy has a strange propensity for bringing people together). Say hello to people you see on campus, at the very least smile once in a while. You will stun some people and ingratiate yourself to others. Either way, everybody wins.