Civilization Crumbles

The New York Times Social Q’s column sometime in the last couple of months included the line – and I paraphrase – “every time we fail to acknowledge someone we know, civilization crumbles a little bit”. I couldn’t agree more.

I am generally a friendly person. I make eye contact, smile and say hello as I walk through my neighborhood. I chat with receptionists, cashiers and random folks on line at the grocery. But those rules don’t always apply in the neighborhood around where I work.

Walking to meetings its possible to pass a dozen people who know you by name, another dozen who know you by face, and not get a glimmer of a smile, let alone a greeting. Few people make eye contact except African-American folks who, regardless of status, invariably return my smile or nod.

I could understand the lack of interaction (maybe) if we lived in a city where every third person is potentially crazy town banana pants, but this here is a little bitty town so that excuse doesn’t really fly. Most of the time when someone passes without acknowledging me I make up stories –

  • ‘They must be really busy concentrating on their Very Important Thoughts…’
  • “Oh they don’t have their glasses on so they must not have recognized me…’
  • ‘They’re in a hurry (or late for a meeting) and didn’t see me…’ (I do this one so I know its legit).

But some days its hard to ignore the social snub and I think –  ‘They just pretended to not see me because … what? They don’t like me? They can’t remember my name? They’re an asshat?’

Either way every time it happens a bit of Turkish Delight chips off the edge of the world and nothing was done to stop it.

These social snubs happened often enough that I expect to be ignored (especially by people of a higher status), so I don’t initiate any contact and sometimes pre-emptively ignore people who’ve snubbed me in the past. I didn’t realize my part in this weird social norm until I participated in a diversity exercise last week where we looked at our partner and told them what we saw.

I’m trained to facilitate these kind of exercises and have done a lot of this work before, but it’s always worth doing even if just as a refresher. In this exercise your partner described what they saw when they looked at you, and then you told them what you wished people saw when they looked at you. Its meant to demonstrate the layers of self that are not evident in our skin, our gender, or even how we dress.

Like the fact that your class, religion, background and lived experience are not necessarily visible on the surface. What struck me, other than the fact that I was partnered with the most closeted man I have encountered in years, was that I had accepted the idea that people didn’t have to see me if they didn’t want to.

I was complicit in the snubbing because I accepted it as a social norm.

I decided later, as I fiddled around with my thoughts for this post, that I will no longer play this game. Like saying please and thank you for service, making eye contact and greeting folks you know is acknowledging their humanity.

I’ve relied on my personal translation of Namaste – “I see the human in you” – to pull back from vilifying people when I find them too hard to handle. So far I’ve only applied it to non-political, in-person interactions so don’t bother calling me out on past rants about the Koch brothers or other GOP mishegas.

Now I’m thinking I need to expand my translation to “I see the human in you even if you choose to not see me.” A little clumsy for a T-shirt or bumper sticker but it will help shore up my little piece of civilization.

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