I attended an APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) recently, discussing inter-generational relationships and loneliness. The group was looking at the causes of loneliness in society, and why communities have grown so apart in recent years. Why we don’t seem to know our neighbours. And how we can see the same faces on the commute to work, 5 days a week, for years, with never so much as acknowledging their presence.
The APPG was influenced by the movement murdered MP Jo Cox started, to get people talking to each other. I’m wearing one of her “happy to chat” pins on my coat daily – though not getting much of a response. If I’m being honest, zero response. Maybe it’s London? People avoid making eye contact here with almost passionate determination. And even though I dislike small talk, some light socialisation can make a boring commute a bit brighter. I’ve had some of my most interesting conversations with strangers on buses (albeit whilst rather inebriated…).
It is bizarre behaviour. I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but what exactly are we so scared of happening if we so much as share a smile with a familiar face? How can we go about moving away from this mindset, as it’s now so socially acceptable? Or, in other words, how can we start getting to know our neighbours, chatting to people on the train, without coming across like a weirdo?
I remember when I first moved to London. It was a shock, going from living with my friends at university, and then my family, to being surrounded by strangers in a flat in one of the busiest cities on the planet. Tourists say they find London to be an unfriendly city, which is easy to understand after spending approximately 3 hours here. Everyone here feels the need to keep (or at least appear) busy all the time – whether with it’s with exercise, dating or drinking. I read some advice (probably on Reddit) that if you want an active social life say “yes” to everything. That was my motto. Whenever I was by myself I felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
I’ve realised that we don’t really talk about feeling lonely, but you can feel lonely even when surrounded by (the wrong) people. There seems to be almost be a stigma surrounding loneliness, that it’s embarrassing to admit you feel deprived of social connection. This is only intensified with social media, where we can see in real time our online friends appearing to make the most of life. It’s difficult not to compare, and think that we aren’t quite matching up.
This is a time where we are more connected than before. We have social media and technology which brings friendship to our fingertips, but many people still feel incredibly lonely. We need to start using it in a more positive way, and not just to see what friends are doing with no need to have an actual interaction with them. Now I’m older, I found I can actually enjoy my own company. And volunteering regularly helps – it’s important to build connections with those who aren’t always in our peer group, and escape our own echo chambers.
It’s easy to feel like a little fish floundering in London, or any big city, but only if we decide to.