We have become a nation of distrusting strangers

THE OLYMPIANMarch 7, 2012 

We really don’t like each other, do we? Each day we see evidence that we have become one nation, divisible. We see so much anger and hatred, and they will become even more apparent as we move toward November. Why? Maybe it’s because we never get to know one another.

Soon after arriving in Olympia 60 years ago, I established a business relationship with a friendly man who operated a gasoline service station not far from the high school. For more then 30 years we saw each other regularly and got to know one another. We were not of the same generation, and we never socialized, but we had interests in common, and while he took care of my car’s needs, we talked of this and that. Our two young daughters looked forward to his teasing banter that often left them giggling in the back seat. He was, in the parlance of the time, a neat guy.

In contrast, today I pull into a gas station, swipe my credit card, push a few buttons, and pump my own gas. No words pass between me and the attendant who sits behind glass windows, usually reading a magazine. I will never get to know that person.

I have never met my newspaper carrier. I mail my subscription check every three months to an anonymous clerk. If I have a problem with paper delivery, I punch 11 keys on my telephone, hear a disembodied voice respond with instructions to punch a bunch of other keys and then hang up. Miraculously my missing paper may arrive in a few hours, delivered by another carrier whom I’ll never know either. No human contact has really occurred.

One of the supermarkets where I shop would like me to scan my own purchases and essentially check myself out. The lone person I might deal with will take my money or my credit card, and we will carry on a brief conversation about dollars and cents. I refuse on principle to use this service; at least I can pass along a few thoughts to a regular checker, but it’s possible I will never see that checker again. He or she will remain a stranger.

I appreciate the occasional help I can receive from a service technician in India or perhaps the Philippines, but in a way, his voice is disembodied, too. I’ll never know whether he is a “neat guy”

I wish my favorite department store still employed a fellow in the men’s department to help me pick out a sports jacket or suit, tell me what would look best on me, and measure me for possible tailoring. Instead, I must go to the racks, make my own choice, and then take it to a cashier who has never worn a sport jacket in her life.

Maybe we need to blame ourselves partly for this state of affairs. Did you consult with your local bookseller or librarian before your last book purchase, or did you merely order via your computer? Do you avoid contact with your bank teller by frequenting the closest ATM?

I am dismayed when I hear young people boast of the dozens of “friends” they have made on Facebook or some other social network. They don’t really know each other, do they?

And so, when we don’t get to know others, we don’t fully understand them. We turn more and more to only our own kind, and we talk about the “others,” and because we don’t really know them, we can easily misunderstand and distrust. And misunderstanding can turn to anger and distrust to hatred, and we are no longer indivisible.

James Carlson is a retired Olympia High School English teacher and a 60-year Olympia resident. A member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, he may be reached at ohsrm228@gamail.com.

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