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 the 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.