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.


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.

Sometimes You CAN Tell a Book by Its Cover

A Light Smile

Check out the photo above. What you think of this lamp-shaded man might tell you about yourself. Stick with me as I explore the human tendency to categorize.

He goes by the name KT. You might think of him as a beggar, but I beg to disagree. To me, he works for a living.

According to KT, his work day can last more than 10 hours. He performs in the heat, in the cold, and in the in-between. Remember what they say about postmen?

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

He stands up during those 10-hour days, with breaks to visit the rest room and eat. You say he isn’t doing anything? Try standing as long yourself. Better still, get the job guarding Buckingham Palace, a type of inaction thought to be an honorable vocation.


KT is a friendly man who told me he enjoys people and wants to make them smile. He displays no shame over his costume. To me, he is enormously clever. I say he is providing a service. Even if you don’t talk with him, seeing him brightens your day. Should you offer him a little money, you are likely to make yourself feel better still. He will shake your hand or give you a fist bump, no charge. Sometimes the passers-by request his presence in front of their place of business. On other occasions you’ll find him outside the Walgreens on State and Randolph in Chicago.

This man reframes the role of panhandler to that of someone who is pleased by pleasing you. Moreover, though you can see nothing of his face, he causes you to recognize him as a person.

Far too many people without adequate shelter spend the day on KT’s downtown streets. A few sell a newspaper called StreetWise, produced with the help of the homeless. You can buy a copy for $1.00. Most sit, with placards describing their plight in too many words to read as you pass. Their eyes are downcast. Quite a number stand, cup in hand, saying “God bless you” or “Have a nice day.” Many ask if you can spare some change or rattle the cup to communicate the same message. The majority of these downtown denizens are black.

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues have 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 a type of brain activation typical of disgust — the same kind of cerebral response characteristic of viewing objects, not people. Perhaps some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. The evidence of history indicates disgust with such Untermenschen (those called subhumans) can lead to casual mistreatment and much worse.

We choose to regard people as foreground or background, as human beings or things. I’ve made them transparent, absent, and invisible myself. Do we strip ourselves of our own humanity in so doing?

There are many reasons we ignore the downtrodden or rationalize our indifference. Some of those justifications appear in an earlier post: On Giving to Street People/ The explanations are not all easily dismissed.

Whatever you do, whatever you believe, don’t think these folks aren’t working. Most are not as creative as KT. Few are as upbeat. Some have had the life sucked out of them. Before you walk past the next time, ask yourself this: is standing or sitting on the concrete an easy thing to do?

If you say yes, try it some time.

The photos of KT and the author with KT were taken by Joni Dobson. They are posted with KT’s permission.