Reading in a coffee shop on Saturday was, all in all, a pretty boring and typical exercise. I was waiting for a friend, and everyone seemed to be going about their day – reading, computing, and conversing. Nothing that spectacular. That is, until a gentleman behind me started yelling at “the fucking bitch” on his phone. This conversation involved a series of hang-ups and call backs, including one after my friend arrived (which understandably startled her, as well as several people sitting around us).
Which led me to wonder – what if we could tell what people were really thinking?
This is not the first time I’ve pondered this concept. As a kid, I moved a lot, and I often found myself wishing I could skip through the same-old “get to know you” routine with people, and just know right up front what they thought of me. It would just be less exhausting – and I wouldn’t waste my time on people that thought my fringe leather belt wasn’t cool.
In actuality, I’m quite certain having this information – getting an instantaneous sense of what other people think of you – would paralyze a person. Because here’s a truth 14-year-old-me hadn’t quite grasped yet – people are mean. And contrary to what Oprah says, thinking mean thoughts is way more fun than thinking nice thoughts (at least initially). It’s about power…it’s about acceptance…it’s about not wearing those jeans with that jacket (idiot). It’s almost like there’s a defensive, cognitive shell that we build up around our psyche, which protects our emotional intelligence by scrutinizing others. When this isn’t articulated, it seemingly protects ourselves as well as others –an ever-changing landscape of opinion that, left silent, grants us both human vulnerability super-human stability. If you were to compare this emotional human trait to a physical body part, it would be the heel.
The romans understood this scrutiny, and reflected these ugly human qualities in the goddess Fama (based on the greek goddess, Pheme). This bitchy goddess has many eyes and mouths, and will just chill-out in her homestead, peeping in on the world through her many windows. Day in and out, she is constantly plugged in to what’s going on – one might say addicted to what she sees. She “gets” society better than anyone else – understands all too well what perpetuates human anger, happiness and incredulousness. In fact, she has four key cohorts to do her bidding – Susurri (gossip), Credulitas (error), Laetitia (happiness) and Timores (terror).
The truth is, if you COULD tell what people are really thinking, the public freak-out that that gentleman experienced in the coffee shop is more the rule than the exception. Everyone else – sipping their lattes and acting civilized – was actually living the lie. They weren’t relaxed at all. Some of them were actually overjoyed (OMG HE’S SO CUTE AND THIS DATE IS GOING SO WELL AND I JUST KNOW THAT HE THINKS MY JOB IS AS INTERESTING AS I DO), while others were exhausted (OMG I’VE BEEN CHASING MY KID AROUND ALL DAY AND REMEMBER WHEN I SPENT MY SATURDAY AFTERNOONS ON COFFEE DATES?), and others were just annoyed (OMG WHY IS THAT BLONDE GIRL LOOKING AT EVERYONE ELSE AND I HATE POSERS WHO GO TO COFFEE SHOPS WITH A BOOK AND DON’T ACTUALLY READ).
But hey – you no longer need to buy-in to these calm demeanors. The truth to what everyone is feeling may not be on their face at all, but it’s definitely online.
The popularity, daily necessity and mobility of social media has created a world that teenage-me would have loved (in theory). People really don’t hold back anymore. They will tell you their every thought, their every move, their every feeling about people and celebrities they don’t even know. They will get into all-out, theoretical, un-winnable wars about topics they are passionate about, shitting all over the world (metaphorically), and then calmly take their dog outside for a walk to do the same (literally). They will spend hours flipping through photos of distant friends – who they wouldn’t even say hello to if they ran into in a diner – painting this hypothetical life that the friends themselves wouldn’t even measure up to, and then carry on their day feeling like their life is less fulfilling.
And by “they” I mean “we”, because you know…solidarity.
This kind of accessibility definitely has its positive outlets (hullo, blogs….so META), but it’s also pretty crippling. Why? Because it’s opened up whole new avenues which simultaneously satisfy and destroy two historically insatiable human qualities – curiosity and narcissism. We want to know (but my gad…we did NOT want to know that)! We want to look good (but fuck…that means we have to look at other people who might look better)! You are left constantly wanting more – but also dreading the more you’ll inevitably find.
Ironically for 14-year-old-me, there’s not much I can think of that would be worse than going to high school when this kind of online environment exists. I don’t know how students go to class every day, knowing that at any time their peers will post their real feelings about them for the entire world to read (and comment on). Come to think of it, I don’t know how you grow up and get past your own personal history of opinion when such extreme emotions of happiness, anger and sadness were worked out on such public forums.
Worst of all, when so many windows on the world exist, it becomes difficult to justify leaving the house.
Fama would be proud of the world we’ve created, I’m just not sure that I am. At the end of the day I guess I’m pretty old fashioned – I’d rather the hurtful voice be behind me in a coffee shop, than in front of me on a screen.