How deadly cold makes us warmer

In a crowded elevator or other places where we’re closely surrounded by others, it seems that people talk to strangers less, not more.

When I moved to Vancouver from Toronto, some years back, I was puzzled to find it to be a less friendly city.    Logically, I would have thought the opposite to be true.   The more crowded together people are, I would have thought the more they might need to create the kind of mental distance from others that they lack in physical distance.   So small towns are friendlier; huge cities less so.  This is a huge generalization of course in that some cultures are friendlier regardless of the size of the cities.

I’ve met one or two people who disagree, who find Vancouver friendlier than Toronto, but for the most part I’ve found that people agree that Torontonians are friendlier.   Some have chosen to move back to Toronto, even referring to Vancouver as ‘clique-ish’, and that it’s hard to meet people.  When I first moved here, I figured the distance or disconnect was because the city was made up of so many people who were new.   There were large number of immigrants arriving then particularly from Hong Kong, and in the number of people arriving in BC from other provinces in a single year was said to be equivalent to the population of Prince Edward Island.    But I don’t think transience is a reason any more.

Random conversation with strangers – waiting at a crosswalk, for example, or for an elevator – in general is not responded to as positively here on the coast.  That’s been my experience, anyway.  So if density doesn’t explain it, I used to wonder if it could have to do with the absence of climate extremes.   In winter in Ontario, I think many people have had an experience of getting stuck in snow, or sliding into a ditch, or having to pull over because you can’t see a damn thing through a blizzard.   I was always amazed by how quickly strangers always appeared to help, to push, or with shovels, or to check if you needed help at the side of the road, in whatever number was needed.  Temperatures were low enough that people could get into trouble pretty quickly, so there was a collective responsibility that wasn’t spoken, but was understood.   And that created a sort of camaraderie.

In the Outback in Australia, I noticed a similar thing.   When temperatures were over 40 celsius and the red landscape stretched flat out to the horizon in all directions with only thesnowypalmtree road bisecting it, if you stopped by the side of the road, the first car to come by stopped and checked if you had water.    When the climate could be more of a danger, people looked out for strangers.

So I used to wonder if that might be why.   In Vancouver, unless you’re a backcountry skier or boater, we usually don’t need that gear, that slight radar of responsibility, of checking to make sure that strangers aren’t in danger, or don’t need help.  There’s a sort of bonding that happens out of that collective responsibility, that we Vancouverites might miss.

Here in Vancouver, our climate is temperate rainforest.  But we’re in the midst of winter wonderland, the palm trees covered in snow.

Midday today in Vancouver at Burrard and Davie, the light turned green and the woman in the wheelchair tried to get through the snow so she could get from the sidewalk to the crosswalk.   Davie’s a pretty major street, but it sure looked like it hadn’t seen a snowplow yet.  I asked if she’d like a push, and when I couldn’t even get the wheelchair to move, asked another guy to help.  Within about 30 seconds there must have been ten people helping to get her over the snowbank to cross the street.  Then there was a sort of smiling, chattering connection with people, the kind that doesn’t happen as a regular thing between strangers in Vancouver.

I recognize that my ‘why Vancouver isn’t friendlier’ theory has one major flaw, because it would follow that citizens in warmer places like, say, California are the least friendly of all.  Which isn’t really so.

And I’m not saying I’m all for climate change because the extremes will make us all care for one another more.

But I wonder if taking a risk at least once a day to create conversation with a stranger, just a moment of connection, might make us all look out for one another a little bit more.


  1. This issue has been on my mind ever since I moved to Vancover six year ago. I’ve never felt lonelier and more isolated than during this time. I’m seriously considering moving…

    1. Wow, I missed this comment somehow.

      I agree with you. I think there are a big number of people here who are fascinated about other cultures and want to learn more, but other than volunteering with Host programs, there is no opportunity for them to meet or interact in real life. And maybe you’re right, maybe Vancouver is geared to be superficial. People dress in sports/fitness clothes a lot more of the time than other places I’ve lived, there’s so much focus on self-improvement and personal development and personal responsibility for health, which is all great, but makes us all pretty ‘me me me’ focused. And a lot of people don’t want that, but don’t know how to change it.

      I sometimes wonder if I was a social planner, what I would come up with for a northern hemisphere equivalent of I think it’s called an agora.

      There’s a big percentage – unusually high – of people who live alone in this city. I wonder how better community opportunities could be created for people to meet, interact, build community?

      My ramblings 🙂


  2. I have definitely found Vancouver to be one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever been to. I wish more cities were like it. However, I think your theory is generally correct: harsh climates make for strangers more interested in helping each other out. But I think that good samaritans don’t necessarily convert into good friends; and while you might not easily strike up a conversation with someone with whom you’re in line at the bus, the way I often do in New York, I find Vancouver-ites overall to be warmer and more caring and more socially active.


  3. Hi Travis,

    Really interesting to read that perspective from someone who’s arrived here more recently than I did. I agree about Vancouverites being noticeably ‘more socially active’.
    I wonder though if New York is so big and busy that people have to protect themselves by creating psychological space when there isn’t an option for tons of physical space. So if Vancouver’s warmth/caring seemed so in contrast to NY?

    On the other hand, I was thinking about my ‘sorta-theory’ the other day actually, in relation to Scandinavia… people from those countries are often perceived as being reserved, conservative, not warm… yet I don’t think of the big cities there as having such harsh climates that people need to sometimes rely on others for survival because of the weather.

    So maybe I have to throw out my harsh-climate theory and try a new one that more northern parts of the world like Scandinavia are less warm to strangers, and southern parts of the world like South America, Latin America, are warmer?

    Or maybe it’s just different cultures, and geography or harsh climates have no effect at all…


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