“Big cities are funny. We’re all just walking around, wanting to be friends with each other, but also keeping our distance trying not to get mugged by each other.” – My Date from Monday Night
I’m from a small town up in Northern Alberta, less than ten thousand people. Big enough to have a coffee shop with an open mic night, but small enough that each trip to the grocery store would usually involve running into at least five people that I know.
I grew up in a culture of familiarity and friendliness. It wasn’t unusual to catch my mom exchanging waves and hellos with every second person walking past us on the opposite side of the street.
“How do you know that woman, mom?”
“Oh, I don’t. She just looked like a nice person.” She’d reply, laughing.
So, when I moved to a city that could fit the population of my home town into it over 150 times, I noticed a shift in culture.
Here’s five things that big city people do differently that cause me to laugh at times, and at other times, leave me feeling sad for our state of humanity.
1. Starting a conversation with a stranger is met with skepticism.
I can’t tell you the number of one sided conversations I’ve had talking at a stranger while riding the transit or in line at the grocery store. I’m a chatty fucking guy, okay? And as much as I love to hear the sound of my own voice, I’d much rather pass the time in the longest check out line since the BEGINNING OF HISTORY EVER… getting to know another human being.
The ironic thing is that I moved to the city, mostly, to meet more people. What I didn’t expect was that even though there’s so many more us here, most people in the city feel more isolated and in their heads than most small town folk.
Everyone has a guard up, and I can’t blame them. More on that later.
I have found though that having a half-decent reason to walk up to someone puts them more at ease, like asking for directions at the train station (which I legitimately get lost using quite a bit).
2. People smile back at you a lot less.
This utterly baffled me for my first year living in a metropolitan area. I would go for a walk to get a cup of coffee, smile and wave to a person across the street from me, and watch them quickly look the other way.
At first, I thought I was just having bad luck. Maybe everyone I was waving to was just in a hurry or having a rough day.
I soon discovered though that someone smiling and waving back was the anomaly, and not the other way around.
3. We neglect our homeless population.
I was leaving the bar with some friends one night, back in my home town. Our designated driver stopped at a convenience store for us so we could grab some snacks and drinks. Then we were going to make a thirty minute drive back to his house out in the country (which was a pretty common thing, really).
Walking up to the convenience store, we noticed a man very under dressed for the weather.
If you’ve never been far up north, most of the winters get pretty cold. This night in particular we were sitting around a biting -40 degrees Celsius.
In other words, our man was freezing.
We microwaved him one of those convenience store subs and asked him how he liked his coffee. Then we asked him if he had anywhere to stay that night. Turns out that he did so we drove him across town to his friend’s trailer. On the ride, we found out his name was Tim and he offered us some vodka as a sign of gratitude, which we politely declined. Pulling up to the trailer, he thanked us again and wished us a good night. We then watched Tim casually walk up to a trailer and crawl under it. I guess the floor boards from above provided him heat through the night.
To this day, my friends who still live up north say that they’ll see Tim walking around town, collecting bottles. They’ll smile and a wave at each other.
I’m not saying that small town folk are anymore considerate than big city folk. I think it comes down to there is just so many homeless people in the city, which is really more of statement on our current economic system than a statement on city personalities.
What I will say though is that when I first moved to the city, I used to give a lot of money to the homeless. Now, it’s usually nothing more than a smile and a nod. Frankly, I’m a bit jaded about it by this point, because no amount of spare change is going to solve that kind of problem.
It’s so much deeper than a negative bank account balance.
Did you know that on average, it takes seven times to rehouse a homeless person through a social work program before they stay living there?
4. Women don’t feel safe walking home at night, or just in general.
Of course, this happens in small towns as well, but a whole lot less.
In a small town, everyone knows each other through three degrees of separation. Everyone knows someone, who knows someone, who knows that creepy guy that was at the bar last night.
Even if you go to the local sports bar and only know 95% of the people there (which again, is pretty common) if there’s a transient that’s acting weird, people are keeping an eye on him. There’s a community.
A woman has a strong support system wherever she goes, she knows every street and alley of the town, and she’s got family roots that go back decades through the community.
Compare this to a city of 1,266,000 people, where most young women have only been living there a few years for university and outside of their circle of friends don’t know the other 99.92% of the population.
It makes a lot of sense why most women report they don’t feel safe just walking to their car at night after their shift ends.
In my four years of city driving, I have seen more middle fingers and heard more honked horns than I have in the entire rest of my life.
Admittedly, I find it a bit funny in a sardonic kind of way.
I’m going to paint a picture for you.
You’re driving to work, running late because you love your snooze button just a little too much. The green light in front of you has just turned yellow and you’re sure you can make it, but in the same second it turns yellow an early 2000’s olive green hatchback cuts you off and slams on their brakes. Red. This is the longest light in your morning commute and now you know for certain that you’re going to be late for your shift. Sitting in anger, you gesture at the vehicle in front of you with one hand while the other white knuckles the steering wheel. Finally, after what feels like an eternity, the light turns green. You get the opportunity to pass the hatchback. As you come up along side of it, you can feel the blood swelling to your face. There are literal veins bulging out of your forehead. “Where the living fuck did this asshole learn to drive?” You think to yourself, ready to shove a firm finger right out your window towards them. But, just as your power window is lowering down, you make eye contact with the driver of the vehicle.
Mrs. Erlington? The sweet, old lady that used to have you over for milk and oatmeal cookies when you were a kid. She taught you how to play monopoly. She came to every one of your birthday parties. She’s gotta be over seventy at this point.
A big smile spreads across her face when she recognizes you. “HELLO!” You can see her mouthing through her window, waving her little hand at you. Her white hair is billowing around from what you can only assume is the car’s heater set to max.
What seemed like an attack on your dignity a moment ago quickly dissipates and you smile back at her before finishing your drive to work.
Satirical? Sure, but it proves a point. The above scenario happens all the time in the city, except it ends it a much more violent outburst.
You likely wouldn’t even get mad like that in a small town because you’d recognize the KEEP CALM AND KNIT ON sticker on the back of Mrs. Erlington’s vehicle.
I find drivers in small towns to have consistently less road rage, more patience and more attentiveness toward other drivers.
When we know people, when we’re part of a community, we treat each other with respect. When we’re surrounded by strangers and thinking about our plans, our schedules, our timelines – sometimes we become little assholes.
Which brings me to my wrap it all up, final point.
BIG CITIES ARE LACKING A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
We have micro-communities in a city, sure. Little village like streets where everyone seems to know each other’s name and will stop to talk to each other. We have sports teams that we grab beers with every week. We have seminar groups that we pour our life stories out to. But it would be impossible to know every single person in a city. It’s just too big.
And if we don’t know someone, we can’t trust them.
Every day people get approached in the city and they think:
“What does this person want? Are they trying to sell me something? Do they mean to hurt me?”
Almost everyone has a guard up and I can’t blame them.
There’s more crime, more drugs, more rapists and more people who wish us ill.
But you know what? There’s also more good people out there as well. There’s people who will help you push your car onto the shoulder of the off ramp you broke down on. There’s people who pay for your Tim Hortons in the drive through ahead of you. There’s elderly couples sitting in diners who will be absolutely delighted to have you join them and hear the story of how they met.
People crave connection. We want to feel accepted, welcome, a part of something bigger than just our own lives.
I respect practicality. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations.
But I think a lot of the reasons behind why cities have more sociological problems is due to our lack of connection. It’s way easier to treat a stranger poorly than it is a friend. If we feel isolated, disconnected from our fellow humans, we’re probably not showing up as the best version of ourselves either.
Do we really want to live in a society that’s so crowded and yet feels so lonely?
My guess it not.
So, ask someone how their day is going next time you’re in line at a coffee shop. Keep a protective eye out for that drunk girl that leaves the club to smoke a cigarette by herself. Take a break from riding that dude’s bumper in the passing lane (I know it’s annoying, but you’re only putting more of us at risk).
Most of all, we need to foster more empathy for those around us. Because in all likelihood, they’re dealing with the exact same shit that we are.
Agree or disagree? Have something to add? Drop a comment below.