Southern Musings – The Power of Connection

comment1Pebble webWe live in a world of connection – smartphones, unlimited free texts, tablets, internet, skype, social media. Our world is so big and so busy, but yet can also be so small.

I recently watched a great documentary on BBC iPlayer about loneliness. I doubt many people could watch it without at some point hearing at least one sentence that resonated with an experience felt at some point in their lives. All demographics were represented – elderly, teenagers, and ‘regular’, attractive people of all ages – all bravely expressing how lonely they feel. Including a lady from Leeds who I think was about my age. A normal youngish woman talking about how heartbreakingly alone she feels. I felt an impulse to contact the programme makers and ask them to give my details to the woman in case she wanted to meet up for a coffee. But I didn’t. I wonder if anyone did. I hope so.

How many of us know our neighbours? How many of us say hello to people we pass on the street? How many of us attempt to make new connections? Not on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn – actual face to face contact. Many judge popularity and social status by number of Facebook friends or Twitter/Instagram followers, but does that actually make your day better if you’re feeling a bit down? Make you feel any more connected with real people? Does it make you feel any less alone?

I was recently running near my house on a route I’ve run hundreds of times over the years, and I ran past an elderly lady who I’ve never seen before or since. We made eye contact, I smiled and said ‘good morning’, she responded likewise. As I passed, her scent fondly reminded me of my Nana, dead for about 20 years. I thought about that lady the rest of my day. I was working from home and didn’t go out again, my housemate had left before I got up and got in after I’d gone to bed, so it turned out she was actually my only face-to-face connection that day; a stranger who made my day better than it would otherwise have been just by a momentary connection. I’ve wondered a lot since then if I was her only contact too; if my greeting made a positive difference.

I often work from the café in my gym, as do several other people. We’re slowly connecting. Forming bonds, building relationships. We’ve all joked that it saves on heating bills, gets us out of the house, enables us to exercise – which is all true – but we’ve all also admitted that if we stayed home we wouldn’t see or speak face-to-face with anyone all day from the moment any family/housemate leaves in the morning to when they return at night.

Despite us all being so busy, with so much to do and so much stimulation, it can sometimes seem such a lonely world that we live in. So many people unknowingly share the same desire for more connection, some for any connection. In his South of the River blog Jeremy has many times referred to South Leeds’ high level of ‘churn’ and the challenges this brings in building and sustaining communities. Connect for Health also recently highlighted the problem of social isolation. A smile and a ‘hello’ can make such a difference.

How many of us stand at the bus stop or in a shop queue staring at our smartphones instead of acknowledging the people right next to us, while at the same time feeling that this semi-isolation isn’t how it’s meant to be? How many people avoid eye contact when they pass someone in the street, yet wish we had more of a sense of ‘community’? We don’t avoid these connections as children but among adults it’s endemic. Why? In case we’re thought strange? Fear of rejection?

It seems that it takes courage to smile, say hi, make a new connection. Surely the worst that can happen is that the other person doesn’t smile back? Hardly the end of the world. But the alternate possibility is that it can make your and the other person’s day so much warmer, and potentially even lead to your worlds expanding. And these connections don’t just fight loneliness, they are one of the building blocks of community.


6 Replies to “Southern Musings – The Power of Connection”

  1. Hi Niki:

    To a certain extent, I agree that people today hide behind technology and fail to communicate with one another in person. I particularly worry about my two children who would rather spend their free time online than playing out in the street with other young people. Perhaps I should ask them if they feel lonely or whether Facebook and SnapChat offer them a respite from the demands of school?

    I do feel that you are a little out of touch with your target audience: most people in south Leeds are struggling just to make ends meet and would love to have a ‘working from home or gym’ day to ‘connect’ with new people: such a day would be a real privilege and a break from the factory, the hospital, the school, the dreaded White Rose Centre or wherever they work to make ends meet.

    I try my best to always wear a smile and to be open to others but with the demands of a full time job and raising two children as a single mother it isn’t always possible to make the connections you talk about. Maybe I should ask my boss about the possibility of a day working from the gym cafe!

  2. I have to agree with Claire. This post sounds more like a dreamy diary entry rather than news. I’d give my right arm to be able to work from home just to ‘disconnect ‘ from people! Each to his/her own…..

  3. Hi Claire:

    I agree with you that nowadays people are spending too much time on their ‘gadgets’ but I think it is a little harsh to criticise the blogger for having a ‘working from home’ day, to assume that everyone living in south Leeds works in tough manual jobs and is barely making a living. You are almost tarnishing the south of the city with a certain brush. The area is diverse, yes there are many pockets of social deprivation, but residents are also employed in a wide range of business sectors. We are very fortunate to live in a city with such a buoyant economy.

    Like you I would love to be able to work from a gym cafe one day a week, not to ‘connect’ with new people but to ‘disconnect’ from people from work! However, I can appreciate the author’s point that it is better to be working in a vibrant place with people than all alone at home. Each to their own, I guess…………

  4. Hi Claire, Peter, Mark.

    Thanks to the three of you for taking the time to read/reply/discuss. From your comments, I feel my referral to ‘working from home’ has been misinterpreted and has prompted a discussion which overshadows the message about connection I was trying to convey in my post. So, at the risk of writing something so long that it becomes a second post….

    When I mentioned ‘working from home’ in my post I was actually referring to home-based/remote workers ie those people who have no choice as they don’t actually have a workplace to go to and are required to work remotely every working day. I didn’t mean jobs where people have the option of working flexibly (those lucky enough that when the demands of the workplace become too much they can choose to ‘work from home’) – I’m sure that huge numbers of us would love that option like the three of you I’ve certainly had jobs where I’ve felt that way in the past!

    My intention in using the example of remote workers choosing to do their work somewhere with others around was that home-based working is isolating in a way that a communal workplace is not (though obviously many of us have had experiences where we’d love to be isolated from our colleagues!), and that some home-based/remote workers try to find ways to overcome that isolation and connect with others. My point was that having the courage to say ‘hi’ to each other has helped us all become a little more connected and potentially a little less isolated.

    I believe this principle of needing human connection applies equally to remote or lone workers, retired people, the unemployed, those with caring responsibilities, etc: it can be very isolating and many people search for ways to counteract it, be that finding somewhere else to work, going to a cafe, going to the library, going to the pub, joining social/community/activity groups. This is the ‘social prescribing’ that Connect for Health was referring to and a reason for the existence of places such as the local community cafes run by the Ciaran Bingham Foundation. And of course many people in jobs with lots of colleagues also feel lonely and isolated, may go home to no friends or family, may be in situations where life’s demands leave little or no time for anything more.

    The point I was trying to make was that many of us have similar feelings of isolation/loneliness and of wanting to feel more like part of a community. We’ve no way of knowing another person’s circumstances as we pass them in the street/wait at the bus stop/wait at the school gates, but by being more open –
    even just by acknowledging their existence – we could make a difference to the quality of their day. And even if they/we are currently content with life it’s no bad thing to connect warmly with others even just for a moment.

    It is of course possible that the other person (or we ourselves) might currently feel so utterly overwhelmed by the demands of life/job/responsibilities that even smiling and saying hi might sometimes feel like too much either in energy or time capabilities – we’ve probably all been there too – but what my article was trying to say was that each and every one of us can incrementally make a difference to the quality of our social environment and potentially to our and others’ mental health by making new connections, even if momentarily.

    I think the interpretation of any post is always going to be affected by personal experience and associated emotion – it’s interesting that Peter you found it ‘dreamy’ while personal feedback I received from someone else is that they thought I sounded sad, and it made someone else I know (home-based worker, lives alone) cry as it echoed her feelings. It was certainly not my intention to write a fluffy middle class ‘let’s all decamp to the gym and be ladies that lunch’ post – I do live in South Leeds after all and am well aware that life is often bloody tough and that it feels like we have a very different life experience than those who are more comfortably-off and who identify more easily with the alleged ‘buoyant economy’ that Mark referenced. I don’t necessarily have 100% in common with everyone I smile at and connect with any more than it’s true to say that there’s any one common South Leeds job or life experience, but that diversity doesn’t mean that we can’t all try to build a community or make a connection.

    Anyway, sorry for such a long response, I hope I’ve clarified for the better rather than for the worse!

  5. Hi Niki:

    it was your reference to ‘working from home/the café at the gym’ which overshadowed the point you were trying to make because it showed that you, like the vast majority of councillors representing south Leeds, are out of touch with the day-to-day lives of your target audience.

    I did find the time to watch the documentary on the BBC iPlayer ‘The Age of Loneliness’ which you mentioned in your original post and it was, when dealing with the cases of isolation due to mental illness, divorce and bereavement, sad.

    However, it also showed that social media and in particular dating websites (in the case of the fit and healthy widower!) offered hope for people who feel isolated by the circumstances. In fact, it presented a method of connecting with people who they may otherwise never cross paths with.

    I think it is wrong to assume that everyone wants to connect with others. Some people are happy to just go about their business and not burden other people with their problems.

    As Peter said, please try and stick to valuable news!

  6. It’s great to see debate on the website so thank you for commenting Claire, Peter and Mark. As Editor I just wanted to clear up one thing.

    There is room on South Leeds Life for hard news as well as comment or ‘op ed’ pieces like Niki’s. I write a column on Friday’s which frequently doesn’t have any real news in it, but hopefully is interesting and has the odd thought provoking reflection on life in our part of the world.

    We mark such pieces with a ‘Comment’ logo to help readers distinguish, but we value them just as much as the news.

Comments are closed.