There are seven billion people on this planet. We see only the tiniest fraction of them from day to day, and interact with even fewer.
That was the premise of a small observational study I made for myself a few days ago. (Sometimes I conduct little social experiments because I like data and really like people.) Specifically, I wanted to find out a few things: Am I aware of other people? How many people do I interact with in a day compared to the number of people I could interact with if I so chose? What does this say about me?
The punchline is that I am largely oblivious to other people. Even though I am pretty social and like to meet new people, I think I get pretty caught up in my own world, my own sphere of reality, my own life.
Here’s how I arrived there:
What I thought would happen
Before I carried out the study, I estimated how many people I saw on a typical weekday. “Saw” in the sense that I could interact with them if I wanted. So, I did not count people in cars or on bikes, people in a different room or the other side of the street, or people that were far enough away that I’d have to shout or run to get their attention. Basically, I only ended up counting people who were in the same room, same train car, or within about thirty feet of me.
I estimated I see 326 people in a day with whom there is potential to interact (Apartment — 1; Walk to/from errands — 50; Train to/from work — 75; Walk to/from work — 150; Work — 50). I also estimated that I actually interact with only about 6 people on a typical weekday (1 at my apartment — my flatmate; 5 at work).
Already I found something out about myself — that I (and, probably, most people) self-contain myself from others — which is the trouble when we start thinking about the way we live.
What actually happened
Over the course of one Thursday, from my apartment to the bank to Trader Joe’s to work and back, I kept track of every person who came within thirty feet of me, who I could have engaged if I chose. Sounds boring and, yes, it was a fair bit of counting, but I find it interesting. So sue me.
I found that there were 773 people who, over the course of a single day, came close enough to me for interaction. I engaged 13 of them (though 5 of those were only simple “Hi, how are you?” kinds of interactions). So, in a twenty-four hour period, I actually had meaningful conversation with 8 people out of the 773 who were available. That’s about 1 percent.
These more-than-a-few-words interactions were with my flatmate, my brother, the bank teller, a guy on the train and 4 people at work.
What it might mean
1. First of all, I don’t make an effort to notice other people. The fact that I hypothesized opportunities for interaction with 326, but had 773 in reality, suggests that either I’m prone to severe underestimation and shouldn’t be an accountant, or — I think more significantly — the world I create for myself is smaller than the real thing. It’s probably true for many of us. We walk with our heads down. We don’t pay attention to people around us, their emotions or their very presence. We have tunnel vision from Point A to Point B. We contain ourselves in small, comfortable bubbles. And, as a natural result, we ignore a lot of people. We miss out on a lot of the being together of life by being voluntarily oblivious.
2. Of the people I do see, I hardly acknowledge any of them with anything more than a head nod. Without a doubt, there are billions of people in this world I will never see. Billions I will never interact with. Many who wouldn’t want the interaction even if it was possible. And yet, how often do we even fail to try? There’s nothing wrong with smiling and walking by, but sometimes, surely, there’s more to life. I saw several people who were emotional, either sad or angry. I didn’t approach any of them. I volunteered nothing of substance to a stranger (the bank teller was the initiator in our conversation, and the guy on the train only started talking to me because he was apologizing for one of his kids who was hanging on my leg). Yeats said, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” I hope that’s true. But the reality seems to be that of the billions of people on this earth, we have the opportunity to talk to only a handful, and yet we hardly take advantage of that gift.
3. As a human being and a Christian, I feel a responsibility and desire to really live together with other people. Fellowship, communion, society, neighborliness, whatever you call it; how good are we at enacting it? As a person living on this planet, shouldn’t I take even the slightest interest in my fellow people? Shouldn’t I at least acknowledge their existence? Or are we all Scrooges? And as a follower of Christ, shouldn’t I want to know other people, want to hear their stories, want to simply be with them? And, what’s more, shouldn’t I want to at least make an opportunity for sharing the gospel a possibility?
Maybe a change in the way I walk down the street. Maybe becoming bolder, friendlier, taking off the blinders and opening myself up to be approached.
Of course we don’t want to be annoying. No one likes the aggressive stranger or the overeager evangelist. So I probably won’t make a quota of strangers talked to in a week. But I will try to be more open. I want to be more aware. I don’t want people to be ghosts, passing like ships in the night, never seen and never seeing. I want to see people for what they really are, which are gifts of grace, each with a story and a life.
So, if I see 773 people every day for the rest of my life, and each day I talk to just one person I wouldn’t have otherwise, that’s thousands of people. Maybe none of those people will change me, and maybe I’ll have no effect on them. But maybe, just maybe, one of them would see a real difference or inspire some. And that, I think, would be worth it.
Obviously, this is a flawed study. One twenty-four hour period is not an adequate sample and my counting was probably not 100 percent accurate. However, I did try to count consistently and accurately. Also, I tried to follow my normal routine, meaning I didn’t approach people I wouldn’t normally approach or add or detract from my typical schedule. Overall, I think it was a fairly representative weekday, and the schedule was typical.