Stranger cities and acts of kindness

“A friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.” ― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter.

It always amazes me when I go to London, that whilst the place is buzzing with life; as people rush from place to place; at the same time it feels strange. Remote even. Possibly even cold. These thoughts follow on from the previous post, where I talked about the “Vampire Express” and the commute into the capital.

We all know that is can be a risky business walking up to a complete stranger and saying “Hi”, especially these days, but as a socially connected species, we naturally want to ensure that we are connected in groups. I began to wonder if being connected in groups was a social thing or if there was a physical or even a psychological aspect to it?

It appears there is a natural limitation in the maximum size of the social group that we connect with.

The optimum number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. According to Dunbar’s number, it is suggested there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships.  

These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. So long as you remain below this 150 person level, the social connections remain strong. You know the individuals, their names, social connections and history. You can imagine that as we evolved, our “extended family” groups were probably of a similar size. When the group got too big, a sub-group would split off and a new “extended family” group would be formed.

Perhaps this is why the concept of social connectedness breaks down in the broader society today.

Why if you live in a big city like London, it feels like a “stranger city” – a phrase I coined in the mid-80’s when I left home for the first time and moved to London. At the time, I had moved to Tooting in South London and was commuting every day into the Wet End and the college I was attending.

The city felt completely alien to me. Every face I saw was blank and non-reflective. People appeared to be aggressive and very pushy. People kept their heads down and rarely looked each other in the eye. You walked a path down the road and beware if your path crossed with someone else coming the other way. If you travelled by public transport, on the London Underground tube, for example; people try to get a seat as quickly as possible and do not look at anyone. The crush on the tube as everyone tries to maintain even the tiniest fraction of personal space.

This is how it was then and to be quite honest, it has not changed in thirty years. The city is more cosmopolitan and mixed in terms of cultural diversity. There are far more people traveling to the heart of London every day now, than ever before. Every day approximately 3 million people travel into the London capital.

So how do you deal with the “stranger” element?

For me, I continue to be compassionate and kind to people. I am aware of the hustle and bustle of the city and the challenges of trying to be kind to others. I strive to be polite. To accept all as they are. I have no wish to be “like them”. To be rude, aggressive and only focused on the “me”. I have stood up and let people sit in my seat on the tube. I have helped people cross the road. I have guided people when they have asked for directions. I have even let people get on the tube ahead of me, rather than be pushy. Simple acts of kindness. Go on. Give one a try.

What have you got to loose? A few seconds, maybe. What have you got to gain? The reaction from others. A smile. Or even a thank you.

I leave you with the following quote…….

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” ― Plato