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.

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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.

A Few Relationship and Dating Tips

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What can one add to the guidance that people are always looking for in finding a mate? Here are a few things you might not have considered:

1. Don’t ignore all the little things. People often betray important disqualifying characteristics early in a relationship. In the heat of the sexual attraction moment, we might want to ignore those things that appear to be small problems. Does your new friend call when he says he will call? Does he show up on time? Is he really listening when you are talking? You might be able to forgive such failures now, but they can signal problems that will appear larger later on.

2. Are you attracted only to “bad boys;” or to women more concerned about how every inch of them looks in the mirror than to take the time to look at you? If so, you’d better ask yourself “why?” If you keep having bad relationships, perhaps it’s because of some of the people you are choosing to partner with. In that case, reflection on your decision-making process is in order.

3. Get past the small talk. Do you want to know someone well? You will have to ask them about more than their opinion of Michael Jackson’s death and the Cubs’ chance of getting to the World Series.

What things might you ask? If your date represents a good opportunity for a lasting and satisfying relationship, eventually you will need to know about his politics and religion, how he handles money and debt, whether he has made good decisions in life, and his capacity for emotional intimacy and openness; does he hold onto old friends and how does he treat them? How does this person deal with frustration, disappointment, and anger? Is he charitable and forgiving?

How does your companion explain past relationship failures? Can he be appropriately assertive? Is he too dependent on you and others? What are his relationships with parents and siblings like? How was he raised? Is his humor too often at your expense or the expense of someone else, perhaps including himself? You don’t have to know about these things right away, but you do need to know about them before your heart starts running the show and leaves your head behind.

4. Don’t expect your date to make you happy. You are looking for a partner and not a caretaker or parent (I hope). Don’t look for someone to make up for past injustices and misfortunes. Don’t expect him to shoulder most of the burden of bringing home the bacon (or rearing the children) alone. Don’t encourage him to make most of the important decisions for you or to expect you to make those decisions on your own.

5. Since most of you reading this are probably relatively young, its important to realize that people change. The person you are with today is not going to be the same in 10 or 20 years or longer. (It would be troubling if he is unchanged by the passage of time. Surely, in 10 years or more one should learn something new from the experiences of life).

There is an old saying that men expect their wives never to change, while women expect that they will change their husbands. If you subscribe to this theory, you are in for trouble. People change physically, and should grow in experience, knowledge, self-awareness, and compassion, but don’t always transform for the better or in a way that is compatible with the alterations that you will make yourself. Does the hot young person sitting across the table from you right now have the ability to grow and to adapt to your own growth? While you can’t know for sure, it would behoove you to have some opinion on the subject.

6. How much self-awareness does your date have? Does he understand what he does and why he does it? Does he know (or care) about how others perceive him and when (and why) he injures someone else? Can he look into the mirror and see himself for who he really is, not for who he might want to believe that he is?

7. Recognize that you are not going to change your new partner. People don’t change because others want them to, they change because they have come to recognize that their behavior isn’t working for them and the cost of continuing in the same way is too high. If you think the relationship will only work if your new love can be altered, think again.

8. How much of a role, if any, do alcohol and drugs have in your life and that of your romantic partner? People tend to minimize or deny the extent to which substance abuse is present. This is especially likely to be true if you come from a family where this kind of behavior was routine. Alcohol, for example, tends to fuel arguments as well as depression.

9. Recognize that the honeymoon always ends. The nature of new love is to see the other in an idealized state. Your friend’s self presentation, attentiveness, and kindness are not likely to increase over time. The flame of sexual intensity will not always burn so bright. Something more will need to be present for the relationship to continue to be satisfying.

10. What do your friends really think about your current romance? Sometimes they can see things that you can’t.

11. Are you looking for someone stronger than you are? Or are you looking for someone docile who won’t challenge you, but simply be devoted and doting? In either case you are almost certain to be in for trouble. Relationships based on this sort of inequity typically become fractious and unsatisfying for both partners. They can transform into hostile dependencies, where the strong, dominating partner feels unappreciated, and the yielding, self-effacing individual morphs into someone who is aggrieved and simmering, or shuts down.

12. Are you insecure? Can you bear to be without a girlfriend or boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance that you are “the one and only?” This gets old quickly. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your friend will almost surely tire of it, leaving you less secure if you don’t ask again for a sign of his devotion, and him feeling put-upon if you do.

As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires the presence of an escort; along with constant bolstering and a tendency to lose yourself, forget about your friends, and give-in to your new love for fear that he will otherwise leave you.

13. Are you still in love with someone else? Is your new date on the rebound himself? The presence of strong feelings which are still attached to someone else can complicate your new relationship. You are discouraged from entering into a “rebound romance” for good reasons.

14. Do your values match up well with the your potential love? Do you share the same vision of life, the same goals; the same stance toward integrity, devotion, loyalty, work, and children? Not just in what you say, but in what you do.

15. Do you tend to be drawn to partners who are much younger or much older than you are? In the former case, this can suggest the need to dominate the less experienced partner or simply to be looking for good looks rather than something more lasting. In the latter instance, its possible that you might be unconsciously trying to find a parent figure or someone to rely on and take care of you. In either case, some honest self-reflection regarding this pattern is worth your attention.

16. If commitment is what you want, beware of the man or woman who says that he or she is not ready for a serious or long-term relationship . To date someone like this is rather like buying a shiny, dashing new car that will start to fall apart after six months.

17. Watch out when you hear yourself thinking that, although you can see that there are problems in your burgeoning twosome, you will stay a while to see if things get better since you aren’t (yet) risking a broken heart. Often your heart leaps ahead in situations like this and you discover that you are in love with the wrong person only too late.

18. Take your time! You might hear the clock ticking on the days of your life (or your life since your last relationship), not to mention the time left on your fertility, but rushing things out of desperation will prevent you from making the best possible choice. Remember, the point of this is not only to win the affection of the other individual, but to determine whether he is worth the winning!

The top photo is an Austrian Road Sign photographed by Pirosko. The second image is described as a “short animated gif with 2D-boy.” Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.