The Danger of Objectification and the Surprising Pleasure of Talking to Strangers

We live in a country where most of us decry the objectification of females — a vision of them as body parts. Playthings, not people. Yet, I suspect some of us are also guilty — to a limited degree — of a different variety of objectification. Less damaging, but still injurious. Moreover, in the act of divesting another of her humanity we lose one of the joys of routine human contact.

We go into a store and pass before a checker on the way out. The person scans your purchases, gives you a total, bags the products, and takes payment. How often do we enjoy a verbal exchange that goes beyond a greeting, a question related to price, and the ubiquitous “Paper or plastic?” and “Have a nice day”? This man or woman has become a series of tasks to be done with speed and without error, defined by our attitude as something like a robot. We are facing another human we can’t escape fast enough, who has the knowledge of our desire for a quick-get-away, and who experiences hundreds of such mini-rejections every workday. We have added one more.

I asked a liquor store associate named Christian how frequently people address him by the name on his name tag. “Oh, I guess about one in 10.” Granted, not a scientific survey, but I can’t imagine the percentage reaching anywhere near 50% in a metropolis.

And so, we dehumanize a person by ignoring his name: making him anonymous and thing-like or simply invisible. Moreover, we rob ourselves of a pleasant way to pass the time — a chance to watch some of those sales associates brighten because we have recognized them as something other than a machine.

In a large grocery I was in the line of a 30ish woman whose ID said Beata. It is pronounced Bee-ott-uh. The name derives from the Latin, beatus, meaning “blessed.” She looked anything but. Her face seemed vacuumed clean of any emotion and life-force. Not unpleasant, but beaten down. I said, “Hello, Beata.”

“Oh my God, you pronounced my name right! You can’t believe how many people get it wrong. Most don’t call me anything at all.”

“I just got lucky,” I answered. “By the way, you have a lovely name.”

“Thank you,” she replied, with a big smile. For those few words and few seconds we both felt a little better.

256px-no_name_road_2988366432

During my teens I worked briefly in a small market, so I know a bit about the dehumanization of being a faceless drone, not to mention the mind-deadening repetition of taking care of one customer after another. Back in yesteryear name tags weren’t commonly used. Now they are. Why, then, do we ignore them?

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues may offer us a clue. They evaluated how the image of the “other” impacts us. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos while their brain activity was recorded. She and Lasana Harris predicted the experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced the brain activation characteristic of viewing furniture, not people. Perhaps some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. Though the folks processing our purchases are not (usually) homeless, I wonder whether keeping a distance is now habitual.

Do we lose our humanity in the process? Do we also deprive ourselves, as social creatures, of one of life’s simple pleasures?

This was not always so. As a boy in the ’50s, the days before shopping malls, you walked to the local grocery and recognized the same employees and neighbors. You had no phone in your hands, increasing the chance of noticing a familiar face. Smiles, brief conversations, and names were more common then, or at least I’d like to think so. Have we become similar to Robinson Crusoe before Friday turned up, despite the risk-free opportunities for innocent contact? Have we created a class of women and men within reach of our touch, without being in-touch; whom we face, but treat as faceless? Or, we do take a look and see another human — only to become uncomfortable without our electronic intermediary, be it the iPad or iPhone, the real thing we place between ourselves and the other?

I suppose I should blame air-conditioning too, the 20th-century wonder that still keeps us cool, but at the loss of evenings sitting on the front stoop talking with the person next door or sleeping in public parks. Both practices were common before A/C contributed to our seclusion. I repeat, we are creatures who need the society of others to fulfill ourselves, create a community — indeed, to create a nation. We need eye contact and conversation to be reminded there is a fragile creature before or beside us, one with the same desire for love, respect, and encouragement; a fellow-mortal on life’s complicated path; like the grass, a living entity in need of sunshine.

Shylock says in the The Merchant of Venice:

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Ah, but I hear you saying you won’t enjoy speaking even briefly with a stranger; that you’d be happier if you didn’t. Research suggests otherwise. We are often poor “affective forecasters:” making wrong predictions about our future emotions. The research link is specific to the question of whether you’d be happier talking to strangers — even if you are an introvert.

I’ll admit, however, that for people with social anxiety a word to the checker or some one next to you in line can be difficult. But since the world is too often perceived as a zero-sum contest — one winner and one loser — here is a game where all are winners: the one who smiles and the other who smiles back.

Therapy needn’t only be about an epiphany, a once-in-a-lightning-bolt moment after years of treatment. Happiness doesn’t always require the purchase of a counselor’s time.

There is worse we can do than “drop” names as a way of boasting about our prominent friends: it is to drop names from our vocabulary. Don’t drop names, say them.

Sprinkle them, like magic fairy dust, wherever you can.

The No Name Road street sign can be found in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The photo is the work of NatalieMaynor and is sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

13 thoughts on “The Danger of Objectification and the Surprising Pleasure of Talking to Strangers

  1. Many thanks Yu/stan/kema!

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  2. Have you listened to the 12 minute TEDTalk by Kio Stark; “Why You Should Talk to Strangers”? (http://www.ted.com/talks/kio_stark_why_you_should_talk_to_strangers). It just came out about a month ago and it makes so much sense. Here’s the blurb that accompanies the talk on the TED page:
    “When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life — and theirs,” says Kio Stark. In this delightful talk, Stark explores the overlooked benefits of pushing past our default discomfort when it comes to strangers and embracing those fleeting but profoundly beautiful moments of genuine connection.

    I enjoyed the talk and your post today immediately reminded me of it. Although I am introverted by nature, I have learned well how to play the extrovert. I think that talking to the clerk at the store or saying hello to the person I pass on the street or striking up an innocuous conversation with the person waiting next to me in line at the movies is kind of fun. I also am aware that I live in a small town and there are a lot of friendly people around here. I smile at pretty much anyone and it’s rare that they don’t smile back.

    Your post is a nice reminder of something the world needs more of right now: kindness.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, JT. No I had not known of the existence of this talk, but watched it on your recommendation. She is perhaps suggesting more self-disclosure than I am, but I think you, Ms. Stark, and me are aiming at the kindness you mentioned, the benefits of connecting, and a way to increase simple civility at a rude moment in our national history. Thanks, again.

      Liked by 1 person

    • JT, thanks for sharing the video link. Interesting conclusion about the value of talking to strangers. I have to thank the Brazilian people for teaching me the art and joy of talking to strangers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So true Gerald, I’ve had a few interactions with strangers where the look on their face is apprehension as if waiting for rejection and criticism then the relief when I don’t do that. It’s also a good antidote to combat loneliness, living on my own is really hard and a don’t really like going more than a day of no contact with other people so going down to the shops and chatting with strangers or even a smile and a hello as I’m walking past someone keep the human connection alive and helps get my head out of the past and realise the trauma of my childhood no longer exists in the present. 😄

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  4. The self-reminders are an important part of keeping us on track in life — not only to avoid confusing the past with the present, but to avoid confusing the future with the past. You are doing a good job of taking care of yourself, Claire. Brava!

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  5. “I repeat, we are creatures who need the society of others to fulfill ourselves, create a community — indeed, to create a nation. We need eye contact and conversation to be reminded there is a fragile creature before or beside us, one with the same desire for love, respect, and encouragement; a fellow-mortal on life’s complicated path; like the grass, a living entity in need of sunshine.”
    ~ Excellent post, Dr. Stein, and much needed in these times.
    ~ A smile costs nothing, so I love to give them away. Most times, I get one in return.

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  6. Thank you, Rosaliene. Would that your Brazilian friends could do us all the service you describe in your response to JT.

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  7. Great post for taking stock! Our worlds have become so big and crowded that we’ve lost a certain sense of community and connection. Thanks for reminding us that the check-out girl is a person with a life and a family and volumes of human complexity that lurk beneath the surface in all of us.

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  8. Dr. G, what strange synchronicity…I read this after just coming home from the grocery store where an elderly lady asked me a question about a product. She made a funny remark and then asked me if I lived in town. Before long, we were having a great conversation in Aisle 4. I thought she was in her late 70s–turns out she was in her late 90s! We turned out to have more in common than I would have imagined. I ended up giving her my business card and said she could call me for a coffee date.
    On another note: I recently read a book on the power of eye contact. Much of it was related to romantic relationships but there was ample research to back up how it can influence our everyday relationships and encounters. Making eye contact has always come naturally to me (and has gotten me into trouble), so it made a lot of sense. After finishing the book, I began practicing saying the names of employees at the store. What a difference it can make! Dr. G. this thoughtful post deserves a wide audience. Have you ever tried writing an op-ed?

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    • Your praise is much appreciated, Evelyn. When I was younger I used to write some op-eds, had a column in a community newspaper, published about music and sports, and, of course, wrote journal articles in my profession. Last time I looked, newspapers have less space for such things, less money, and don’t want material already in print, whether electronic or otherwise. But, I suppose the big thing is that I have less ambition and rely on my readers if they want to let their “friends” know of what I’ve written. But, never saying never, perhaps I will take your advice at some point, Evelyn. I certainly am grateful for it.

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