It’s an unspoken rule that while riding public transit in Boston, you’re to avoid eye contact with fellow passengers. You can be engulfed by your phone, appear fascinated by the ad above head or stare into space. But if you turn to a stranger and try to strike up a conversation on the T, you might be taken for someone slightly off your rocker.
Having grown up north of Boston, I thought all cities shared these social dynamics. It wasn’t until I started spending time in the Midwest, where strangers stop you in the streets and genuinely want to know how your day is going, that I learned we're not like the rest of the country. With the exception of New Yorkers, we Bostonians can seem unapproachable and distant - relative to people in other regions.
Every time I meet newcomers to our local tech scene, I ask how they're finding the social landscape here. I've been told that our city can be "cliquey" and that "people are more closed off" compared to other areas. A few people spoke of their adjustment to how we don't greet each other in the streets or start conversations with others when waiting in lines.
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From these discussions, I thought up a little social experiment: I'd attempt to make small talk with complete strangers and see what happened. Here’s what I've learned.
It takes time to shake your Yankee ways.
Once I had it in my head to give this social experiment a go, I regretted it. I'm as extroverted as they come, but being from the area, I still felt like I was disturbing people who were just trying to go about their business. So the first few times I greeted strangers on the T, my words came out in a whisper. It was creepy as hell. But once I stopped overthinking it, my salutations came out like second nature. It slowly became socially acceptable. In my mind, anyway. I even started to enjoy it. Hellos for everyone.
Technology can make it awkward.
This endeavor has created a love-hate relationship between tech and me. In addition to people being absorbed in whatever's on their phones (a crime of which I'm also guilty), so many folks commute with headphones. I tried not to disturb individuals who were clearly wearing headphones - usually a sign they want to be left alone. But there were times when I thought I was talking to someone, only to realize they were nodding along to the beats emerging from their sleekly engineered earbuds. Other times, people saw my lips were moving and pulled out their buds only to hear me explain, “Sorry, I was just trying to say ‘hi’ to you.”
You win some, you lose some.
Turns out, Bostonians aren't all unreceptive to chatting. Sure, I've gotten the expected scowls and cursing from a handful of people. But I was also met with smiles and mutual greetings. People who remember running into me have started to reciprocate the gesture, greeting me before I could say anything to them.
We all need a "hello" right now.
Negative emotions are running high. Over the course of this mini-experiment, a few folks voiced their appreciation when I've extended them a line of communication. People have revealed when they're having a rough day, disclosed the hardships they’ve been enduring and shared their concerns for the future. I've realized that in a world where worry is circulating social media, what some Bostonians - and people everywhere - might need the most is a "how's it going?" and a smile from a stranger.
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