Community in urban metropolis: proximity and the stranger

The urban metropolis is a space in which one encounters “strangers” all around. Strangers are not “far away” and therefore beyond engagement. They occupy proximal space. Sociologist Georg Simmel, who wrote in the mid-1800s, was intrigued with the combination of the Stranger and the Metropolis. According to Simmel, in order to live in the midst of strangers, people must cultivate a posture of indifference. You and I are able to occupy the same physical space, even to transact certain business dealings, without being required actually to engage one another–as long as we remain indifferent or blase. In an urban setting in which strangers are forced together indiscriminately, indifference is a civil response. The well-mannered person of the modern age knows just how much social and psychological distance to grant strangers. Too much engagement entreats a response from the Other, and this would be considered a violation of “their space” and poor conduct. This cultivated indifference is what Miss Manners might call the “cuticle” that guards against the friction of the proximity of strangers. It is indeed a civil response for modern society, but the effect of this indifference is a loss of face. We soon learn not to see the Other at all.

– Social Prisms, Jodi O’Brien