New York City is an interesting place to go hugging. There are so many possible spots, from the well known like Union Square, Washington Square Park, and Times Square to the more mundane – sidewalks in seemingly random places that still have enough foot traffic and lighting to go hugging. In the dozen or so times I’ve hugged in New York, the best places have been The Highline, a walkway intersection by the Delacorte Theater (Shakespeare in the Park) in Central Park, Rockefeller Plaza (before I got kicked out ’cause none of that will be had on private property), and a few of the random streets I found with good spots. I actually prefer these places in some ways as there is none of the expectations there that many of New York’s more touristy spots carry towards busking and performance. My favorite of those may have been a sidewalk just to the side of Union Square where my neighbor the Halal Kebab-cart man took an unusual amount of pleasure in what I was doing… to the detriment of his bottom line (he barely paid any attention to selling food) and to the slightly inappropriate, but at least amusing, attempt to hug (or get me to hug) all the pretty women. The worst spots have been Times Square (really demoralizing in the lack of human dignity there), Union Square itself, and surprisingly to me, Washington Square Park. In places like these people seem to be on guard or in the mode of seeing things as spectacle, which makes it hard to connect. Or the spaces are just too wide and crowded.
Through all these varied locations and varied successes though, a pattern began to emerge: It has always been true that how people respond to my hugging offer is shaped by how people around them have responded. I’ve always noted that too large a crowd of people meant fewer hugs… If the first people up front turn down the offer or walk by unnoticing, it becomes very unlikely that the people walking behind will do any different. I usually have to wait until the group clears if a large crowd is walking together or in succession and the first wave declines. On the flip side, once one person within eyesight has taken a hug, the people that follow, whether with that person or not, become much more likely to hug. I will often go two or three minutes with no hugs and then have a wave of 5-10 hugs in the next two to three minutes. This is how my average of hugs usually stays above one a minute. This has always been the case, but somehow this effect, and a few other socialization effects seemed more dramatic in New York…
During my Central Park hugging, I routinely had a number of stretches of 5+ minutes with nothing but funny or distressed looks, but I also had many waves that lasted and formed impressive streaks. I even had a line of 10 or so people form at one point. The feast and famine of hugging, and particularly the degree to which people seemed more interested when they saw an example was notable. So too was the number of people who requested group hugs at Washington Square Park and the number of people who were more interested in hugging when I had a partner with me than when I didn’t at The Highline (always a notable effect as well, but more pronounced in NYC). Another thing I’ve noticed here, but only in limited amounts elsewhere, is a sizable number of people who express the clear desire to have a hug (saying “I really could use a hug,” walking by several times in different directions, etc…) but never actually take that hug. I’ve always had people who express interest, seem uncertain of taking action, and then come down off the fence when I make a clear offer directly to them. But here in New York, there were far more people who resisted despite themselves – who seemed more captured by their social norms.
So why is this? I have a few theories, and I will offer those, but no definite answers:
The first and the simplest is that in a city of this size, social rules and expectations become more necessary. To maintain order and community with so many people, there must be more conformity not less – a hidden playbook that strengthens with each use and sets guidelines for how to behave, in part at least so the sheer number of human interactions can be more rote and not so tiring in their individuality.
The second, a variant on that, is that in such a large community, conformity within a small group becomes more important. This exerts itself in New York and in many other large cities in the amount of segmentation that happens between communities that are a part of the whole. In a smaller sense, this means that if one member of a social group walking down the street engages with a hug, the social pressures or draws are then larger on the rest of the group. In less specific ways as well, in a city the size of New York, there seems to be a loose feeling of community that forms just from existing in the same space as the people around you. There are so many places and people scattered about NYC, that some small accepted sense of community forms for the people who have chosen just to occupy the same area of space at the same time. In any other place, people would definitely respond to the social normalization of what I’m doing that occurs when someone within eyesight hugs me. But here in New York there seems to be an added sense of union that forms when people in one space can participate in something there together as an ad hoc, short-lived community. This perhaps is a wonderful, if fleeting, thing.
The third, which I’ve noticed myself being in The City, is that privacy comes often only in the company of strangers. There is very little truly open space, and apartments are quite crowded and full. On the Subway, but also in the open air, privacy is found by just not making eye contact or engaging with others. The effect of that on the hugging is that people engage in any way (even to reject the offer) less until they see reason to take notice (i.e. other people already having engaged). Because privacy is needed when there are people around, those people become more a part of the landscape – moving architecture of the space as much as human beings. This to me is both logical and dangerous. In moving around the city, it would be tiring to connect readily with people, and there is of course a genuine need for “alone time” wherever you can get it, but it means that at least in the public space, human beings get reduced to sound bytes and surface impressions. There is engagement when the circumstances are right – a mutually witnessed comedic moment, a shared small tragedy or triumph – but the sheer number of people moving around far outpaces those moments, and that makes more people into moving objects than complex human beings, at least in the public space. Since understanding the perspectives and individual natures of human beings is how I base my life and my hugging, this to me is a hazard.
The fourth is that people, from experience, simply have more expectation of what a man with a sign might entail – and have less curiosity to find out what this one is about.
And, the fifth is that most simply of all, people have just hardened themselves more against being open and supported. I sense a feeling of going it alone here that sadly leaves less room for accepting acceptance. Value must be proven from inside, out and not taken as offered. Little do they know that I endeavor in my hugging methods to support their internal process and to help validate for them, but also from themselves, who they already are.