Alone Together in a Small Town

In the summer months, I spend a part of my week on the lovely Grand Forks Greenway system in my hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota. The walking and cycling paths of the greenway run for some dozen miles along the Red River of the North adjacent to downtown and various neighborhoods in town. On a good day, I can see some deer, a prairie dog or two, a few little frogs, and maybe one of the bald eagles who lives in the area. They all go about their business without paying much attention to me and I try to let them do their hoping, prancing, sniffing, and gliding without much interruption.

Grand Forks is a small town but it’s not as small as some towns, though. It’s the local county seat and market center with a big hospital, lots of banks, two malls (although one has a church as an anchor store), and a bustling little downtown with restaurants, bars, a couple breweries, and a gun shop. We have a daily paper that still publishes on paper most days per week. We know our neighbors, but not so well that we’re up in their business, but well enough to know their names and to know people who know them. My feeling is that in smaller towns or villages, people tend to know their neighbors better. In larger cities, where you have genuine suburbs, people enjoy not to know their neighbors at all.

When I exercise on the greenway, I tend to do it by myself. Maybe this comes from years of swimming when despite being what my parents called a “social swimmer,” you are forced to be alone with the water, your strokes, and thoughts. As I ride my bike or jog along the greenway, I see other people exercising on their own or in pairs and I almost always say “hi” or “hello” or whatever. The responses tend to be quite muted. A few will respond with a cautious “hi,” but most folks just ignore it completely. At first, this struck me as a bit odd, but I chalked it up to people listening to music, distracted by their own work outs, or just not expecting someone to say “hello.” After a while, though, I noticed that people I knew also didn’t respond to my greeting.

This has got me thinking a good bit of Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (London 2011). The book describes the relationship between relationships mediated by technology and the growing sense of alienation in the modern world. I wonder how many of the people who pass by without acknowledging my gesture or who turn their head to avoid any possible interaction are simply invested in a podcast, their workout playlist, or some other distraction being piped directly into their earhole. On the other hand, I suspect that many folks who I pass are not so much distracted themselves, but assume a kind of mutual distraction while moving along the public paths on the greenway. They might tilt their head away to avoid that disappointment of reaching out for a moment of recognition only to find the blank stare in return.

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