It is said that social distancing falls easily for us Norwegians. We prefer not to associate with others, especially strangers. If we had to, it should happen at arm’s length and finish quickly.
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But in reality, we city dwellers have regular exchanges with strangers; The city is mainly made up of people we don’t know. In the urban space, it comes down to everything from fleeting negotiations over driveways on populated sidewalks to rare instances of lengthy talking on a park bench. Through fieldwork in central Oslo, I researched for several years the conditions that lead to random and friendly contact between strangers in public spaces in the city.
Such a connection is an essential and often celebrated aspect of city life; It has been called the “essence of urbanism”. At the same time, this type of connection is under pressure in urban development today. Featured local issues are prestigious privately owned areas such as Aker Brygge and Tjuvholmen in Oslo. Such urban areas and privately owned urban spaces have raised international concern: the removal or restriction of unexpected people, activities, and social encounters is often attempted because they can threaten commercial interests and alarm favored target groups.
We usually don’t interact with strangers without further ado. We need a reason. These causes or conditions that lead to random contact between strangers can be divided into three main types and a number of subtypes. There are conditions that expose people to contact with others, cause them to turn to others or allow mutual access.
exposed to contact
Some circumstances make people accessible to strangers. This may be because of the role or position they have in society, or other reasons.
The most common types of exposed people in city rooms are people with social roles who are obligated to be available to others: police, security guards, guards, caretakers, waiting staff, and more.
There are also some groups of people who are exposed to contact because they are considered socially harmless. This applies to the elderly, but above all children. Even those who stand out by virtue of what they do, wear or bring with them, may be subject to inquiries. Like the young Muslim woman who wears the hijab and the bunad on the May 17th train or the middle-aged man in The Cloud outfit that proudly struts along the street. Not least when it comes to people who have dogs — and children.
“Right” to contact
Other terms give individuals a perceived right or right to initiate contact with strangers. It may be, again, because of their role or standing in society, or something else.
Vendors, pollsters, recruiters, activists, street performers. What they all have in common is that, in addition to being considered accessible to others, they also act as open people, as individuals who have the right to address others. Usually such things abound in big cities.
The certainty that for a while they are not as perfect as them can count for some lowering the threshold for approaching others. Drunk people are typical openers (their poor critical sense also helps). People who drink outside as well. And the Russian, they compare the Russian nodes that require inquiries with unknown ones. Another type of introductory person is the regular or regular guest, who is permanently in the streets, squares, or restaurants often addressing or taking the role of host towards others who may move into their ‘lands’.
We all also have the right to offer and request assistance related to simple information (direction, location, time, etc.) and secondary services (beacon, currency exchange, street crossing, door holding, etc.).
There are also circumstances that make strangers mutually accessible to one another, such as sharing a group affiliation, a limited physical space or an experience.
Common group affiliations that can elicit greetings or fairly intense contact vary among people who meet each other: kindergarten groups, dog owners, bus and tram drivers, fans of the same football club, and people with the same minority background.
Specific places can actually be ‘open areas’, such as the indoor and outdoor areas of some pubs, bars, and cafés – partly endangered. Of course, alcohol plays a role. But some cafes can also have similar social qualities, such as Evita, which is currently closed in Greenland. There was a free casual atmosphere inside and out, a celebrity profile, clients from different backgrounds, many regular guests, lively conversations, and strangers who easily got into conversation. Sometimes “open areas” can cover much larger areas. Brotherhood during demonstrations, concerts, festivals and celebrations of sporting achievements are some examples, and the low mourning community after July 22nd is another.
Even small and large events watched with unknown others can open up for communication: square meetings, processions, street music, spontaneous theater, spontaneous scenes. Physical objects of interest can also form common references, such as water fountains, sculptures, or rich exhibits. The Pokémon Go mobile game should be mentioned in particular. It has been the source of a lot of random interaction between city strangers, and exemplifies the powerful potential of digital technology as well when it comes to physical interaction.
Different expressions, similar circumstances
Communication between strangers varies geographically and culturally. Foreigners’ perception of Norwegians as being socially reserved agrees well with psychology’s “northern personality type” and with anthropological research on Norwegian characteristics. As Norwegians, we also like to place ourselves with the more spontaneous and compulsive Southern Europeans and the extroverted North Americans.
However, my study shows that the basic conditions that lead to or allow random contact between Oslo strangers are largely the same as between ethnic and non-racial Norwegians.
The same is true among these, described by the leading North American sociologist Erving Goffman of his time, in his theoretical explanation of the phenomenon. The underlying conditions that cause random contact between city strangers are mostly the same as in another country I’ve lived in and researched in, Argentina (in many Western countries). The differences between the mentioned countries and groups are more in how people tend to interact with strangers when conditions open up and with what flexibility this contact is handled.
Real meeting places
Before it came to keeping a distance from each other, physical public meeting places were high on the cities’ agenda. The king’s idea was and still is that the diverse population should come together and interact. For the latter to happen to some extent, we must, in our simultaneous enthusiasm for neat and tidy urban environments, be careful not to spoil much of the conditions from which this connection springs.
Bjerkset, Ambassador (2022), Informal encounters in the city: what makes strangers interact with each other? Norwegian Social Journal (pp. 1-18) June 14, 2022
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