Author: Amelia Joselow, CCC Director of Marketing and Outreach, Green Program Director, Cambridge Winter Farmers Market co-manager
Some might think of community as a stationary thing- a neighborhood, a community center, or a church. So it’s basically a place right? But what if community is not a tight net of connections in a certain location or among specific people, what if it is a power line you carry with you always, ready to spark and connect with others and plug into the world around you, even with strangers?
In an article in “The Art of Manliness” (don’t be put off by the name, it is actually a blog that tackles many social issues), John Corcoran runs a 21-day experiment of being kind to and making conversation with strangers. What did he find? He felt happier and grateful for having made these connections. He learned interesting things and was able to help others too.
Corcoran was not the first person to test what would happen. Researchers Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder of the University of Chicago studied when the Metra, Chicago’s subway, introduced “quiet cars” where people were not allowed to talk on cellphones and were discouraged from speaking with others. The people they surveyed predicted that they would be happier with a quieter commute, but they were surprised by what they found. In a New York Times article about the experiment Epley writes,
“In experiments we conducted over the last several months, we found the same to be true while commuting. In one experiment, we asked Metra commuters in one group to "enjoy their solitude" and refrain from speaking to other commuters. Others were asked to talk to another passenger. A final group received no instructions. At the end of their ride, these commuters filled out a survey about themselves and the commute.
The results? Commuters asked to interact with other passengers reported having the most pleasant commute. Commuters asked to enjoy their solitude reported the least pleasant commute. The pleasure of conversation was not just restricted to friendly people; we found the same results among introverts and extroverts.”
At the end of his article Epley implores readers to try reaching out to others, and this is what John Corcoran did in his own 21-day experiment. In his blog Corcoran included some short stories from his experience:
“Friday, May 9th, a hotel pool, Calabasas, CA. While visiting my family hometown for a wedding, I encounter a man sitting on the side of the hotel pool as I am about to go swimming with my son. He has a small white dog that my son pets and we start talking. It turns out he’s just moved to the area with his family from Chicago. I tell him what I know about the community, the schools, and particular neighborhoods where he’s looking to buy a home.
He’s appreciative for my advice on the local high school, the same school I graduated from.
How I Felt: The interaction makes me feel useful and valuable. His daughter is about to enter my old high school and he seems relieved when I tell him it was a good school.”
Corcoran does say that there are barriers to reaching out, and offers some suggestions: “put down you iPhone and other device,” “wear a conversation starter,” (which apparently first female Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did with broaches) “offer a compliment,” and “seize your conversation opportunities immediately.” The results, according these studies and stories, are worth it.
So how about that, huh? Many times a day we find ourselves around strangers- walking down the street, waiting for the bus, sitting on the subway, in line at the grocery store- and out of habit we keep to ourselves. It takes effort to reach out. In this last story, Corcoran reached out as a part of his experiment to feel happier, but he also had a positive impact on this stranger’s life. And isn’t that what community is all about? Being connected to others and having a positive influence on each other?
So what does “carrying community with you” mean? Just that idea, that we could connect with those around us if we wanted to, and we could make our lives happier by doing so. So if you could build community wherever you go, if you could make the world a happier place with just a few words or a short conversation, well... why not try it out?