Solving Cities

Spontaneous Society: Breaking down urban anonymity

Spontaneous Society: Breaking down urban anonymity

Posting in Cities

A New York poet leads walking groups around the city using simple phrases to break down urban anonymity. But be careful, it can get addicting.

I have a confession to make: I live in a city with around 600,000 people. My neighborhood mostly consists of densely-packed rowhouses. I see people all the time waiting for the train or bus or passing on the sidewalk. But I don't talk to people.

Occasionally I smile or nod my head as I pass someone on the sidewalk, but usually nothing more. I wouldn't consider myself an introvert, but in the city, around strangers, I mostly keep to myself (I don't even have a smartphone to hide behind). I like people but I don't usually talk to them unless I know them.

Urbanists like to tout spontaneity as one of the benefits of a walkable urban neighborhood. The argument goes like this: In a car the only random human interaction you might have is waving someone on at a four-way stop. In a walkable community, the likelihood for random human interactions dramatically increases.

While there's definitely more human activity around me and more chance for conversation, it can be disappointing how infrequent these random interactions among strangers actually take place. And despite being surrounded by people, it can be easy to feel anonymous.

One of the most famous examples of this urban anonymity came when the world-famous violinist Joshua Bell played in a Washington, D.C. Metro station for 40 minutes. During that time seven people stopped to listen and he made $32. Far less than a ticket to his performances. A superstar went unnoticed.

To experiment with breaking down the social barriers in urban society, New York City poet Jon Cotner created Spontaneous Society. It's an idea that is comically simple, but not surprisingly it's effective. The idea is to use premeditated phrases, such as:

“That’s a good-looking dog.” (said to someone approaching with a dog)

“It’s a good day for a ride.” (said to someone biking past)

“Safe travels.” (said to someone wheeling a suitcase)

As part of the Elastic City -- where artists lead audience members on interactive "poetic exchange[s] with the places we live in and visit" -- Cotner leads groups of people around New York City to experiment with these one-liners with the goal of creating more joy and spontaneity in urban life.

The result? Addiction.

That's because these tiny altruistic acts flood your body with a "happy hormone" called oxytocin, Cotner explains on BMW Guggenheim Lab's blog. Cotner looks to Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, to explain what's going on.

[H]appy people tend to engage with others, and that cooperative engagement is key for a society’s economic health. We buzz cognitively and existentially during moments of connection. Our bodies fill with oxytocin—“a pure, social chemical released within seconds of positive social stimulus,” as Zak says.

The molecule, at least 400 million years old, is found in all mammals. But once released it passes quickly to our kidneys. Zak notes that “oxytocin goes right from our brain into the toilet.” He recommends frequent social contact, whether smiling, talking, hugging, or giving gifts. These actions (as well as having sex, giving birth, breastfeeding) release the chemical, which in turn leads to a desire for greater contact.

That's part of the reason why Cotner says the experiment is fun and addicting.

"Living in a metropolis produces an intense awareness of time. Situations and people vanish before they even appear. Everything can seem so fleeting," Cotner tells me in an email. "If we’re going to reach out to someone, and create a smile or conversation that otherwise wouldn’t exist, this must happen now. Otherwise it's too late. Spontaneous Society gives participants some practical tools for connecting with their worlds."

It's the little moments that Cotner enjoys, like the one where Cotner told a man with a white parakeet on his finger, "'That’s a good-looking bird.' The bird smiled then smoothed its feathers. It said 'Good evening.'"

Here's the audio of Cotner trying out other one-liners on New Yorkers:

Spontaneous Society by Jon Cotner

I can't get over how a few random words can make a big city feel like a tiny town. It's an idea that's simple enough that I might have to try it out, a little bit at a time if I can help it.

Photo: Courtesy of Elastic City

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure