There’s something that has always bothered me so I’ve decided to give it a name and write about it. I think I’m looking to see if it’s specific to my reality or something that’s a little more universal. You’ll have to let me know.
I call it the You-Me-Us Connection. And I don’t think I like it. I think.
Let me explain.
The You-Me-Us Connection (I’ll just refer to it as “YMU” from now on) can happen any time, anywhere. It involves a brief interaction between you and another human being, during which you and said other person acknowledge one another’s existence through a small gesture. Like a quick head nod, wink, or even a sigh. The most important factor, however, is the YMU occurs when both people nod or wink or sigh because they feel the other person, in this particular moment, is in a similar mental or emotional state.
Confusing? Good. Let me give you some examples of this momentary union between strangers to illustrate it a little more clearly:
- On the subway in the morning, two men sit near one another. They’re both wearing suits, and maybe they’re both reading the newspaper or The Economist. They look at each other and then sigh or nod—perhaps in acknowledgment of the fact they’re both wearing suits and may therefore be in similar lines of work and therefore may be experiencing similar stresses and anxieties. Or maybe it’s because they’re reading the same magazine and therefore may be thinking about the same issues, like how our economy is f-ed up. Or maybe it’s because they’re both really tired and don’t want to be going wherever they’re going.
- Two parents pushing strollers nod or sigh as they make eye contact while passing one another on the street.
- Two people who are overweight sigh as they see one another on the steps in the subway, as if saying, “Seriously? Steps? I shall hunt down the person who invented them and slap him or her in the face.” (I saw this one happen this week.)
After years of mentally taking note of these kinds of interactions, they only became an issue for me when someone tried to engage me in a YMU moment.
The day began like any other. (I hate stories that start like this.) I was on the subway, heavy backpack on my back, tray of coffees and plastic bag full of DVDs in my hands. I was also wearing an ID page for the company I was interning for at the time. Then a young guy got on the subway and, in short, he looked a wholeeee lot like me—glasses, unruly Jewish hair, ID badge for a TV show around his neck, and food and packages in his hands. And then it happened: he looked at me and let out a noise that was a combination of a sigh and a short, absurd guffaw. Translated into words, this meant, “This shit sucks. I feel ya, man.”
Now, in theory, moments like these could be comforting. After all, as we go through our daily routines, how could such a connection, albeit a fleeting one, hurt you? Empathy feels good. But I’m having difficulty accepting all of this because of the few thoughts that went through my head when that kid looked at me. It was like: “You don’t know me!” followed by “There’s no way you use conditioner,” then finally “I ain’t like you!” (And I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink right now so I’m really learning to not underestimate the power of these gut feelings.)
In truth, I’m not really sure why I felt this way. Maybe it’s because he was trying to engage me in some temporary camaraderie but I didn’t feel like it because, well, maybe I felt different than him about our respective situations. He seemed to be really frustrated and tired, while I was pretty excited by what I was doing. It was one of my first internships and I’d just moved to New York, so things were pretty damn good. If I had said something back to him I think it would’ve been, “Eh, sorry kid. You’re alone in this one.”
I think the reason I’ve been thinking about this YMU moment is because, as many small things do, it highlights the bigger picture for me. Here, it’s an issues that has bothered me longer than the YMU one has: We often don’t consider the inner lives of those around us.
We all experience things differently as people, but the YMU perpetuates the notion that things belonging to the same category or concept are therefore similar to one another. In my Cognitive Psychology course, we’re learning about the ease with which we use categories and how this can lead to misconceptions and problems. The process of categorization can lead to stereotypes, and we all know that stereotypes don’t always hold up. And I really just wrote that sentence so I could follow it with this one: Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I want to work out excessively so I can have rock-hard abs and dance without my shirt on at these otherworldly places that people call “gay clubs.” (There’s, like, glitter there.) And if you prefer a more textbook example, I offer you this: Even though robins fall into the bird category, no two robins are the same, just as no two people are the same. (This is literally an example from my textbook.) While some of this may be quite obvious, I offer it just as one explanation as to why the YMU thing may be rubbing me the wrong way.
That said, I hope you’re thinking what I thought while writing this: “But Jonathan, aren’t you just stereotyping as you make judgements about all these businessmen and moms and interns?” Yup. Maybe I am. With that in mind, perhaps I should stop writing and let nature be. After all, the YMU only exists because I gave it a name and decided to write about it. My bad.
And so, dear reader(s), as I leave you to think about the YMU for yourself(ves), let me leave you with one certainty to make up for all the ambiguities and sentences in this post beginning with “I think…”
There is one time when the YMU moment is unequivocally acceptable, appropriate, and necessary, and I know so because it happened to me. Last week while stopped at a corner, I looked at the girl next to me whose music was just as loud as mine. She nodded at me and smiled.
We were both listening to Justin Bieber.