I haven’t had a car for over ten years – I gave up my 1986 Volvo when I moved to Seattle and have been reliant on public transit ever since – but even I know how bad traffic has gotten in my city in the last few years. I mostly know because everyone is constantly complaining about it. Public transit is subject to traffic, too, though, so I also experience the rush-hour-levels at 1:30 on Sunday afternoons or at 8 o’clock on a Monday night. I was thinking about this on the ride home recently; it’s actually not that we “experience” traffic, we are traffic. And the same is true for culture. I complain as much as people do about traffic about people’s lack of follow through, their enthusiastic expressions of “let’s hang out” but then radio silence when I actually suggest something concrete, having to ask three or four times to actually get together with most of my friends (I do have some beautiful exceptions for which I am very grateful). I’ve discussed, posted about and bemoaned the “Seattle Freeze,” this phenomenon of utter indifference towards other human beings that people in Seattle express – this grindingly, wearingly impersonal friendliness that never seems to bloom into actual friendship, this maddening, impenetrable forcefield around everyone that keeps people disconnected and interactions shallow. But, just as we are traffic, we are culture.
To be clear, I don’t think it’s okay not to mean what you say. Letting your yes be yes is foundational to not only integrity but communication itself. I also don’t think it’s acceptable to enthusiastically express interest in hanging out and then never respond when the concrete-times-to-get-together part of the conversation comes up. I have no idea why people do that besides maybe leading people on to save themselves the discomfort of being honest about having no intention to follow up. And I don’t excuse failing to be present for and in relationships by being “busy.” But I can’t point my finger at something solely “out there” when I’m complaining about these things. I have excitedly expressed interest in attending gatherings or going to events that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to or didn’t want to go to. I have said “let’s hang out” when I had no intention to do so. Saying no is hard and uncomfortable. I am a victim of this culture as much as I participate in and perpetuate it because culture comes from people.
This is good news in that it isn’t this inscrutable force outside of human beings, which means we have the power to change it. The problem is that it takes more than one person to change a culture. It took me ten years of living in Seattle to realize that pretty much no one literally means they want to actually hang out when they say “let’s hang out;” as much as I hate this, I’ve started doing it, too. I didn’t start unconsciously; I make a deliberate choice to end conversations with “let’s hang out” knowing I won’t follow up because, honestly, it’s the path of least resistance. I have no more energy to chase people down because I trusted they meant it when they said “let’s get together.” I now assume they don’t mean it, so my empty “let’s hang out” is a defeated but comfortable way to close conversations. I’m tired of being looked at like a freak when I trust people’s words and then follow up with actual times I’m available so I don’t do that anymore. One person may be able to change the world, but it’s hard to see how one person can change a culture.
Maybe that’s because we’re a collection of individuals. You’d think our foundation of radical individualism would elevate the influence of an individual but, when it comes to social and relational health, individualism works against individual people’s power to change. Individualism requires disconnection; one person attempting to change the way human beings treat their connection with each other is, as far as I can tell, as effective as one hand is at clapping. We need each other to change the cultural truth that we don’t need each other and I’m not sure where to begin on that one besides pulling over, putting on my hazards and inviting others who pull over to do the same.