Monday, October 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Krystal C'Costa

I have a cane. It's on loan from my friend, Wendy, and I'm using it to help me get around (which is what canes are for, I suppose) while I recover from a sprained ankle. I hopefully won't need it much longer, but as means of preserving what remains of my self respect (the story behind my fall is a bit silly and a result of me being somewhat clueless), I turned my cane into a social experiment.

NYC subway commuters are known for being cranky--particularly in the morning. We're all sleepy and there is nothing more prized than a morning rush hour seat on the subway, where you can close your eyes for a few minutes and dream of coffee and bagels from the "man in the can" in front of your building. For a healthy person, if you get a seat it's gold, and if you don't, well you stand there kind of grouchily and try your hardest to make people move around you but its not the end of the world. When you're injured though and need assistance to move around, every step requires immense amounts of energy from you. It's exhausting. So getting a seat is the anthropological equivalent of uncovering Lucy.

So here is what I found:
Boarding the train:
On the LIRR, people were more willing to let me board first; they even cleared a little path for me.
On the subway, no one appeared to see me. They averted their eyes and flowed past me in an effort to get the elusive seats.

Adult males were more likely than adult females to offer me a seat if none were available.
Teen males were more lilkely than teen females to offer me a seat if none were available.
Overall, teens were more likely than adults to offer me a seat if none were available.

Exiting the train:
Males were overall more likely to allow me to exit before them.
Males were also more likely to allow me to exit the train before attempting to board the train themselves.

What does this mean? It raised a few questions for me:
(1) Is a there sense of humanity that we lose as we get older? The teens seemed to have more human sense than adults. In addition, I noticed that they were more likely than adults to offer seats to struggling moms. Or is that as adults, we become so self absorbed that we fail to see the needs of others? Now it is reasonable to say that adults are more likely than teens to be tired or suffering from an illness or ailment that is not visible. And if that's the case, and then they are quite fortunate! And by no means should they then be forced to stand unnecessarily. But if its more the case that adults have a sense of "Hard luck" towards the person in need, and intentionally ignore the situation, then at what point does this transition occur? Are we impressing upon our children the need to be kind to other human beings, and then forgetting that message along the way.

(2) Is there a sense that women are exempt from so-called "chivalrous" acts? Finding that men were more willing to give me their seats was also interesting. Is this a holdover from the largely bygone era (now often interpreted as misogynistic) of holding doors open? As women, do we expect that it is the men who will have to act in social situations? I recognize that the male/female distinction I am making may draw criticism, but this is merely an observation and not a declaration on the law of the land. To be clear, I am wondering about the percentage of women I observed who kept their eyes resolutely on their book or newspaper while I swayed a bit precariously before them

I guess the bottom line is what does it take to acknowledge another human being in need? Is it a purely individual feature? Something wired into us that has become dulled through time? Where does simple human compassion come from?

Should we blame technology? Numerous studies have reported a decline in social skills with the growth of social media--to be fair, there is a growing body of research that focused on the emergence of new kinds of social skills needed to navigate online worlds like Second Life. Are we so immersed in the digital that we have forgotten how to interact with one another? Between iPods, portable video players, video games, phones that do everything from letting us check email to updating Facebook statuses, have we lost the ability to recognize reality (until the subway announcer says your stop is coming up)?

I'm not on a mission here at all. I'm lucky that I'm still able to stand so getting a seat isn't a top priority for me, but I've seen very pregnant women ignored and bumped and jostled until someone looked up from his iPod and decided to give up his seat. I've seen men who take up three seats because they can't sit with their legs closed. Wendy suggested that in these situations, you can and should ask (politely) for him to shift. "It takes a village." But I've also seen a man call a woman a "fat***" because she asked him to shift over--and this woman looked beat. She was wearing one of those nursing uniforms that home health aides wear, and she just looked tired. He said, "Your fat*** won't fit." She never sat down.

What is the cause for this seeming social deficit?

1 comment:

The Write Bunch said...

HC: Thanks for your "study," and I hope your ankle heals quickly!