This past summer, I was just one of a thousand eager Penn students interning in New York. Four trains—and an hour and a half of smelling body odor—later, I commuted to the Brooklyn–based office from my boring Jersey suburb to gain “experience” and seize “opportunity.” I learned the ropes of tri–state area public transportation, hustled through the corporate crowds of Wall Street and hopped across the East River to be among the hipsters of Park Slope. And though I went through so many different neighborhoods every day and saw a great diversity of people, I noticed how little these folks really interacted with each other. They all had something in common: the cesspool breeding of antisocial customs, the “fuck you, don’t mess with me” grudge, the fact that everyone had their eyes glued to their smartphones.
The idea that our touchscreen gadgets make us antisocial in person is age–old. The theme of technological sedation runs rampant in classic dystopian novels, and, a few years ago, an MIT professor wrote a whole book on the topic called “Alone Together.” Jeeze.
But are we so lost in our own virtual worlds that, though we may be physically together with other people, we ignore social etiquette? New York City would answer an immediate ‘yes’ to that question, but how about here at Penn and in greater Philadelphia?
For the past couple of years, I have been that odd one in the bunch for having a ‘dumb phone,’ and if I dared to maybe even glance at the stranger next to me, often, his eyes would instantly shift to his phone like a method of self–defense. Am I that ugly? One time, I sat next to a woman who voraciously chugged a jumbo bag of Skittles while texting. How stressful was her day? I didn’t ask the questions in my mind. There were’t many “hello, how are you”’s. I truly think it has become a public norm in some places not to look up from your smartphone.
I’ll admit—I purchased my first iPhone three weeks ago, and I’m guilty of sometimes avoiding awkward social situations by looking at my phone. On my 23–floor elevator trip down from my high–rise apartment, I’ll browse Facebook or check my email rather than talk to the people who share such an intimate metal box with me. There’s always this initial fear to extend a ‘hello’ to the person on the other side. So, I’ve been trying to talk to the strangers in the elevator more often to test my hypothesis. And nothing horrible has happened. I think I’m making some pals, actually.
So while the semester is fresh, I propose a daily goal to all of us treading the grounds of Penn: let’s not be New York. We don’t need to walk down Locust like investment bankers walk down Wall Street. When you’re making the irritating run to class from Huntsman to DLR, don’t be afraid to make a random travel buddy by looking up from your iPhone 5. Say ‘hey’ and be friendly to the guy next to you. Whether you’re a freshman, a construction worker, A–Gutt or a post–doc, I can’t get to know your personality with a six-second Vine.