Saturday, September 26, 2009

People Watching

Can you remember when we all lived in the land of “Leave It To Beaver” and Mayberry?

If you can remember those simpler times – as depicted in TV Land – you’ll recall that many a lazy afternoon was spent sitting on the bench in front of Floyd’s barber shop… just watching the people of Mayberry amble about.

Those days are pretty much gone, mainly because Main Streets don’t seem to exist any more, at least not the kind of Main Street where people walked from store to store down the sidewalk. Main Street has been replaced by Wal-Mart and the mall. If you enjoy people-watching, as I do, nowadays you probably do it at the mall.

The first time I can really remember people-watching was in church when I was just a tot. At St. Peters Lutheran Church in Lexington, on the first Sunday of each month, the service included Communion, which involved every adult member of the church lining up, and easing their way to the altar in groups of a dozen or so. Since I was about five years old, I didn’t yet quite grasp the whole “forgiveness of sins” thing, so I focused on watching the people walk up to the front of the church… the same people, month after month, year after year. By the time I was seven, I could recognize everybody in the congregation.

And by the time I got to college, I had developed somewhat of a hobby out of people-watching. As I recall, I spent most of my entire sophomore year sitting on a bench in front of USC’s Russell House people-watching, instead of attending class.

Nowadays, as a sometimes-political consultant, it’s actually my job to watch people, and study their habits… except we call the people “voters”. Still, it’s people-watching, and I enjoy it.

Politicians, of course, need to do more than watch people. They need to walk up to them, introduce themselves, and shake their hands. Believe it or not, that talent doesn’t always come naturally for politicians. I often need to show them how to do it.

The problem, I think, is that we, as a society, don’t interface with each other as much as we used to. We may watch people, but we rarely talk to strangers.

Just as technology has evolved, so have our relationships with our neighbors. The coming of the automobile nearly a century ago made us more transient, and less likely to know our neighbors. A half-century ago, the innovation of back yards took us away from our front porches where we could see people walking by. And then, TV forced us indoors instead of outdoors, and air-conditioning made that move permanent. Now, for some people, the Internet is taking away any reason to EVER leave the house.

Consequently, many people find themselves more isolated than ever from actual human contact. And that’s a shame. It diminishes our quality of life.

One of the joys of being the publisher of community newspapers is the endless opportunity it gives me to meet new people. From my earliest forays into this business, back when I spent my days selling advertising, I considered it my job each day to go out and meet new friends. And I did!

In my freshman year of college – the year I actually attended classes – my sociology professor told of an informal experiment whereby you would show up early at the movie theatre, when only one couple had already taken seats, and proceed to take the seat immediately next to the seated couple… instead of any of the dozens of other rows which were empty. The reaction, of course, would always be awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes the original couple would move to different seats.

It’s a strange reaction, because, as animals, we are by nature drawn together, into tribes, much like herds of elephants, packs of wolves, flocks of geese, or schools of dolphins. But somewhere along the way, we seem to have erected some sort of artificial walls around ourselves.

While you might not be inclined to go out and just introduce yourself to new people willy-nilly, I would nonetheless encourage you to at least engage in healthy people-watching, which I figure is the next best thing: the mall, the zoo, at a ballgame, the beach or lake, on a cruise, tailgating, at a concert, the post office, at a flea market, or in a restaurant.

Or, if you can find one, on a bench in front of a barber shop on Main Street.


Andy Griffith said...

way be da jeorg

Reader said...

People watch Da Jeorge.

Anonymous said...

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