Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Forced socializing is rude

I am a typical church-goer in many ways.  I go to Mass every week at my ROMAN Catholic Church.  We have a great pastor who actually gives intelligent sermons.  But one problem we've had in recent years is with our lead singer.  I won't mention his name or give any indication of who he is, because he's probably a decent guy, but he has a most infuriating practice of having us introduce ourselves to the people around us before Mass.  Such introductions are not a requirement in the Catholic mass or even standard practice, but this guy forces it on us and the pastor lets him.  For those of us who are socially shy and introverted like myself, it is not only extremely uncomfortable but offensive.  I am there to worship God, not to network.  It became so annoying to my parents that they actually switched parishes.  I haven't, but I've done my best to avoid it.  I tried to pray during these introductions, but the people around me would just force themselves on me.  Lately I've taken to coming to Mass late to avoid the whole thing.

The practice of holding hands during the Our Father, also not required in the Church, can be just as bad, with on occasion those next to me actually grabbing my hands. 

Why is it that outgoing people try to force socializing on ther rest of us who simply want to be left alone?

I couldn't help but think of this issue when I read Belladonna Rogers, in response to a letter from a reader complaining abut people listening to their iPods with earbuds in public, now laments "the public plague of Earbuds":
The scene you describe, where any stranger you’d consider approaching on a subway platform is enveloped in his or her own earbudded world is, as you know, a widespread phenomenon, particularly among the young.  While listening to music is one of life’s greatest joys, what’s disturbing is that the technology of light-weight, portable players not only entertains but also isolates the listeners, making them appear uncaring of, or at least disconnected from, others.

While music can help people cope with anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and pain, the constant use of earbuds actually creates two different problems, both serious.  Earbud People become unapproachable by others and, at the same time, are cut off from their own innermost thoughts.
"Cut off from their innermost thoughts?" And you would know this how?
Your discomfort around Earbud People may stem from your sense that — either purposely or inadvertently — they’re behaving hostilely and rudely, insisting that you keep out of their world even though you and they share a common public space.
Last time I checked, leaving the house did not make it open season for anyone to approach you for any reason imaginable. 
In the past there existed an implicit social contract in public: We’re all in this together. We’ll help each other if needed.
No longer.  It’s as if  the Earbud People are wearing “Do Not Disturb” signs. Their eyes are often closed, absenting themselves even further from those around them. This used to be one of the functions of sunglasses indoors and on subways — to say, “I’m not here.  I’m inaccessible, so buzz off.”   Earbud People are cut off from others who might serendipitously begin a conversation with them. They’re thus preventing not only unwanted human contact but also the potential of positive contact.
In earlier times, merely by looking away from the gaze of another person, at the ground, or by reading in public, one could signal “Do Not Disturb.”  But not everyone did it.  There were always many people who were accessible and ready to give directions, talk about the likelihood of rain, or speculate about when the next train might arrive.
Now the lack of empty discussions about the weather or speculating about when the next train might arrive is a sign of the collapse of civilization? Barf!
You’re not alone in finding this conduct anti-social and disturbing.  While the users of these listening devices may not intend to convey hostility, they do.
Earbud People get much less out of every subway trip — and out of life in general — than they would without their earbuds.  Once we’re in public we can benefit from being open to others.
Being open to others is not always a benefit, especially when such openness is forced on you by people such as Ms. Rogers.  In fairness, she does later admit:
Is it their right to ensconce themselves in their earbuds’ sounds?  Of course, it’s their right.  But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. 
Except she never really says what's wrong with it.  Oh, she says things like:
Another aspect of the public behavior of Earbud People that many find annoying is that they act as if they have no responsibilities to their fellow citizens – including, of course, to you, when you sought a knowledgeable, approachable person for directions. So, too, when Earbud People walk down a sidewalk, with their glassy eyes staring straight ahead, they fail to notice an elderly or handicapped person who could use a helping hand crossing a busy street. 
I'm not sure how listening to music prevents someone from physically seeing, but no matter.  Since when did helping an elderly or handicapped person across the street become a "responsibility?"  It's a nice them to help someone with that, to be sure, but it is neither a legal nor a moral "responsibility."  The responsibilities we owe to each other as citizens are primarily legal ones.  The moral responsibilities -- the truly moral responsibilities, such as helping someone who has had an accident -- are rare enough that we as a general rule do not and should not plan our lives around them. 

Further, earbuds are not surgically attached to the ear.  They are, in fact, easily removable.  When I went to Rome, I had fun walking the city with my iPod on listening to disco.  When I needed to talk to someone or vice versa, I actually took my headphones off (I hate earbuds; they start to hurt after a short time).  It's not rocket surgery.  Millions of people do it millions of times each day.

The most bizarre aspect of Ms. Rogers' piece is her calim that earbuds have led to "The Decline of Thinking:"
Earbuds not only cut off interactions with other people, they also disengage their users from a vital part of themselves.  They block one of the most important human activities: thinking.
Thinking is an important part of living.  And there are so many kinds to do: creative thinking, problem-solving thinking, memory-reinforcing thinking, daydreaming, planning, thinking about hopes for the future and how to realize them, thinking about books or movies and what their messages have meant to us, thinking about people in our lives and how we can see them more frequently — or less — thinking about a future event that we’d like to organize, thinking about a campaign that we’re part of and how we can best contribute to its success, thinking back on enjoyable moments and forward to ones we anticipate with excitement.
Is it not possible to do any of that thinking with the volume turned up so high that the person sitting next to you hears the words of your songs?  No.  Must everyone think?  Evidently not.  It is good exercise for your brain, however, and many who fear early-onset dementia could help themselves by actively thinking.  Watching any kind of screen, except a blank one, is not active thinking. Thinking is active thinking.
The assumption here seems to be that everyone who wears earbuds turns them up so loud that they cannot think.  Huh?  I use them when I'm on a boring plane or train ride, usually when I'm reading a book.  That's when a lot of people use them.  Her premise here is flawed.
By robbing themselves of easy accessibility to others and, equally seriously, depriving themselves of the chance to focus their own thoughts in a useful way, Earbud People exist in a zombified zone that is neither communal (with the chance to interact with others) nor the condition of true solitude (with the chance to be alone with their thoughts).
In generations past, when students or young people gathered in large areas, walking between classroom buildings at a high school, on a military base or college campus, they had three options: they could walk with one or two friends, with a larger crowd, or alone.  If they chose either of the first two options, they reaped the rewards of sociability: they teased one another, they discussed interesting points of the class they’d just attended, they kidded around or shot the breeze.  They were practicing and honing social skills.
Those who chose to walk alone had a chance to think.  To think creatively or to mull over an idea.  Whatever else they did, all young people could also hear birds, traffic sounds, and shouted greetings from a distance from a friend.  They were — whether involved in conversations or immersed in solitude — vitally aware of their surroundings.  They certainly weren’t screening them out.
Many of us did our best thinking while walking from one place to another.
Wait a minute! She claims that earbuds impair thinking by cutting people off from one another, yet she claims people do their best thinking alone.  She can't have it both ways.
Now that the Earbud People have invaded, they’ve taken over subways, academia, buses, and sidewalks from coast to coast and around the globe.  They’re passively receiving sounds that they alone can hear.  Other than mob violence or criminal behavior, theirs is the most antisocial public behavior one can imagine. 
It's not so much anti-social as it is non-social.  I wouldn't say it's offensive, however, at least not nearly as offensive as Ms. Roges' determination that they be social whether they like it, want to, choose to, or not.
The world would be a more civilized — as well as an intellectually and spiritually richer — place if the Earbud People would disengage from their technology and re-engage with the world both in communal life and through the luminous experience of true solitude.  But this will not happen.
I should hope not.  The world would be more civilized if people like Ms. Rogers would just understand that not all of us want or were meant to be social.  Nonsocial people leave social people alone; why is the reverse rarely if ever true?

Some of us just don't want to be social and instead want to be left alone.  Forcing socialization on us is rude, offensive and counterproductive.  We will be social when we choose to do so, when we are more comfortable doing something that for us is normally painfully uncomfortable.

Until that time comes, people like Ms. Rogers should mind their own business.


  1. Amen. Literaly, "Amen."

    As a Catholic, I didn't like it much when the handholding segment of Mass was added. In my church, St. Monica's, they even created name tags for everyone so people could be more social. Forced socialization, like forced sterlization, is not good.

  2. Are you two the guys who walk past me in a hallway without acknowledging my presence?

  3. I agree that forced socialization is not good. I think we should all be allowed to socialize in the amount we choose in the way we choose. Some socialize just sitting around over coffee with friends, while others do so going to bars, clubs, etc. Some need to every day, while some are just fine only a few times a week. We are all individuals, and we should be allowed to be individuals.