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August 3, 2010

I’ve been mulling over that basic My Square Mile proposition to my neighbours today, with a little help from’s State of the Neighbourhoods Report. This has promising news about both the existing level of neighbour contact and about the appetite for more, especially amongst young people.

But I also decided to take a walk to the edge (a circle only has one) of My Square Mile world, along one of the main routes – just for inspiration. I noted a few of the places along the way;  the pub, two residential care homes, the Anglican church, the memorial hall (which houses several organisations and had some interesting posters) and the A2 cutting its noisy swathe through the circle. I think this reminded me of the variety of ‘entities’ I will be dealing with, in addition to private houses and flats.

But I was more struck by the fact that I only said ‘hello’ to one person. I encountered about a dozen, but all bar one of them avoided any kind of eye contact.  I watched how they did it as well – in most cases this wasn’t preoccupation… I’m sure… it was a deliberate dropping of the gaze, feigned attention to a mobile phone or, in the case of one loitering couple, a slow subtle rotation of the body so as to present their backs to me during my transit… almost as though they were committing a crime and didn’t want witnesses!

I’ve written about this before and about why and how much it bothers me. Assuming that it’s not just that I am hideous or very scary (I’m not, I assure you… well, not scary anyway) what I am observing is normal behaviour, and therefore behaviour that seems to make sense to people. Whilst some of it may be about ‘avoiding trouble’ I’m sure more is down to increasingly thin skins and reticence – a mutual conspiracy not to appear nosey or intrusive.

Just one guy, who had posted a letter, did exactly what I do – a brief glimpse to check for mutual eye contact… we connected, said a suitably brusque but hearty ‘helloalright’ and passed. Simple mutual recognition, but a very different feeling from all those non-connections.

Conclusion – that’s a first order challenge to my proposition, to get over the reticence – some of which I myself felt just on account of walking along a village street without a real destination/excuse – and to give people reasons/excuses to be comfortable about connecting with me. It’s also one of the outcomes – a) simply greater incidence of acknowledgement and greeting in the area, leading to b) an increase in the number of people who recognise each other the next time, and maybe even get to talking… however superficially.

What a simple but profound thing!

Judging from Gumtree’s report, at least it’s not just me.

Back to developing that simple message then…

[Later – 9th August – here’s an encouraging voice thrown up by WordPress’s magic]

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ade permalink
    August 9, 2010 4:12 pm

    Hi Nick,

    Read this blog post and thought: thank goodness, it’s not just me, either. I’m not certain what we’re all so nervous about. I can only theorise that our propensity for “herd” behaviour has meant that this creeping paranoia (propelled by many different agents) gained sufficient critical mass and most of us just unthinkingly mirror the behaviour of others. Therein also lies my hope: if more of us *consciously* act to reduce this reticence to acknowledge others, the scales can be tipped the other way. Good luck with your project; looking forward to reading your updates.

    • njbdartford permalink*
      August 9, 2010 5:30 pm

      Thanks Ade – your response is, of course, another little tip to that same scale. So here’s “not just yous” right back at yer ;0)

  2. August 12, 2010 11:01 am

    Hi Nick,

    you are neither hideous nor very scary (far from it on either count!), but you are tall and male (not much you can do about that!) and this would be the first thing people clock.

    However, I think that when our vibrational level is high and our intent is good, then this resonates around us and becomes more important than how we manifest physically.

    So my hunch is that all you need to do is ‘keep up the good work’ and you will be amazed how many people start responding in a positive, relaxed and friendly way.

    As a woman living in a village, it’s easier for me to engage with people in my sphere mile – but then I don’t get the practice to hone my ‘engaging strangers’ skills in the way you will.

    Looking forward to reading the next installment!

  3. Jay permalink
    August 16, 2010 6:57 pm

    “it was a deliberate dropping of the gaze”

    Remember that, as a man, when you’re walking down the street you’ve got a whole wodge of gender privilege that 50% of the population lack.

    As a woman walking down the street I am at risk of receiving a variety of entirely uninvited comments and insults based on what I’m wearing, my body, my facial expression and my sheer existence as a woman in public. This is harassment, and some of it’s deliberately intended to intimidate me and make me feel uncomfortable about walking alone in public.

    Consequently I do what I can to discourage men from making these kinds of comments, and studiously avoiding eye contact is about the only tactic I’ve got. It’s the only means I have of saying, “No, I’m not interested in being leered at.” It’s all I can do to protect my dignity. Accidentally making eye contact with the wrong type of guy will invariably be interpreted as a come-on and followed-up aggressively – can you understand why women might not want to risk this?

    As Louise notes above, in particular circumstances with higher levels of trust – a village, or hiking in the countryside – it’s possible to put this aside, make eye contact and mutter a “hullo” or “good morning”. As a lone woman out walking, though, you are still having to weigh up when this is safe. Demographics is part of this – builders or white van men, definitely avoiding, indie-looking middle class boys, most probably fine. But mostly it’s easier not to make eye contact at all, just in case, rather than make some calculation and still risk getting it wrong.

    Women look away because of years of social conditioning, and years of experience of what happens when you don’t. And you call this “more thin skins and reticence” than “avoiding trouble”? Mmm, that sounds a bit dismissive of some legitimate safety concerns.

    “I’ve written about this before and about why and how much it bothers me.”

    Are you claiming that *you’re* the victim here?

    To be sure, it can’t be great to be tarred by the actions of the worst of your gender. But what do you do to make women feel safe in public? Ever seen a guy hassling a girl, called him out and explained how what he’s doing isn’t ok? Every guy who remains silent when they see this is tacitly saying it’s alright. Until men tell other men that this behaviour’s unacceptable, it’s not going to change.

    I’m sure you are a nice guy. You’d like people to acknowledge each other in public – that’s cool. But recognise what you’re asking here. It’s the overturning of some pretty deep social norms; women, in particular – and perhaps other groups who feel vulnerable in public too sometimes, be they old people or gays and lesbians or some ethnic minorities – look away for a reason. Recognise that you may well be asking women to do something that feels pretty uncomfortable in order to make you feel more “community-ish” and less “bothered”. It’s a bigger ask than maybe you recognise.

    Behaviour isn’t just spontaneous action but rooted in deep social power structures. To genuinely change the former, the latter need to shift too – that is, women will make more eye contact when society gets less sexist. More generally, more social trust requires less inequality in society – Wilkinson & Pickett made this point in ‘The Spirit Level’ last year.

    • njbdartford permalink*
      August 16, 2010 8:11 pm

      Hi Jay,

      I can’t find much of what you say to disagree with. So I ought to clarify a few details and, you’re right, I need to be a bit clearer about what bothers me and why.

      Of the people I was talking about in the post, two were female. One was probably in her early twenties and was using a mobile phone – and for both reasons, including what you’ve rightly pointed out, probably figured least in my reactions. The other was late middle-aged and a member of the couple (who you could say therefore had some kind of advantage over me) who both behaved in such an odd, actively contact pre-empting, way.

      All the others were male and a variety of ages – and a couple of them would, themselves, have qualified for real or imagined white van man status.

      What bothers me? Not their behaviour – it’s not that I feel slighted, or disappointed that they aren’t playing my hypothetical happy community game. What bothers me is, absolutely as you say, that this reflects gradually learned rational behaviour given something about much of our society. It’s my problem and our problem – but not theirs as individuals. Deep cultural change? I won’t settle for anything less. And because it’s not down to ‘them’, to ‘other people’, to sort this – it’s down to me to do what I can, every day, starting on my own doorstep.

      You’re absolutely right to remind me that this isn’t ‘taste and fancy’ – it’s serious.

      Why does it bother me quite so much, quite so instinctively? It’s alien to what I grew up with. It’s completely contrary to my experience of walking through our own small town, where I grew up in South Yorkshire in the 1960s, with my Dad. My Dad? A 6ft 4in steelworker, outwardly pretty rugged, inwardly a gentle and sentimental man, who was able to greet friends and strangers alike as they passed us, irrespective of gender or age, and be acknowledged back by people with open faces.

      Mind you, if he had come across someone treating a woman with disrespect, and I know the people you describe aren’t a new species that didn’t exist in the 1960s, there would certainly have been ‘an intervention’.

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