There’s a 20-year old episode of the sitcom Seinfeld where Elaine Benes suggests to an aide of New York Mayor David Dinkins that the city would be a much more friendly and welcoming place if everyone wore name tags. “It would be like a small town,” she beams. The aide, Lloyd Braun, suggests the idea to the mayor, who floats it during an election campaign. Of course, Mayor Dinkins is mercilessly ridiculed and Lloyd Braun is fired.
This week, a Vancouver woman who has found this city to be an unfriendly place is floating exactly the idea that in TV fiction cost David Dinkins the election.
Shelley Koorbatoff is from a small town, Grand Forks, and in her two years in Vancouver she has had a hard time meeting people. Ms. Koorbatoffs noticed recently during a meeting at work that wearing a nametag made people in the room more likely to talk to each other.
She calls her initiative “Say Hi Vancouver!” and on Feb. 8, she would like us all to wear nametags and introduce ourselves to strangers – people whose paths you may cross regularly, but still, strangers.
She has created a Facebook page to promote the event. It reads as follows:
“Say Hi Vancouver is a simple idea. Wear a name tag and say hello! Why? We see the same people everyday … in the coffee shop, on transit, at work, even in our own neighbourhoods … and we have little or no connection to most of them. We live our lives beside each other, an invisible barrier separating us – subtle yet powerful. A simple name tag can break through this barrier, giving permission to Say Hi! Even if for just one day it will be worth it! We’ll never see those people the same way again … suddenly they become someone we can say hello to, name tag or not. Imagine the possibilities!!!”
Yeah, I can imagine the possibilities.
There’s a reason people don’t talk to each other on transit, in elevators, jail cells, or anywhere else where they are being held in close quarters against their will: You just don’t. It’s uncivilized.
Be honest, if someone came up to you on the SkyTrain, made eye contact and said, “Hi, my name is Dave, what’s yours?,” what would your first reaction be? Me, I would assume Dave wanted money, and I would avert my gaze. Does that make me a bad person? No, it’s just practical. It eliminates the need for conversation, or for me to have to listen to Dave’s hard-luck story. It slams the door shut, where the door ought to be. Plus, it saves time. Dave can move on to the next person and I can continue staring into space.
If Dave then pointed to his name tag and said, “No, you misunderstand, I’m just being friendly! See?!” I would switch trains.
And I know, in the past I’ve written about all of the things we could do as a citizens to be better to each other, to reach out to newcomers, to be more welcoming in our communities, but I draw the line at talking to strangers just because they happen to be wearing name tags; because it’s a day.
Making it an official day makes it even more Seinfeldian. (Who does not want to wear the ribbon?!) The expectation that I’m going to do something because someone has set aside a day for it frankly makes me angry.
And if you go down that path of just talking to anyone, where does it end? I mean, what’s next? Sit in the front seat of a cab day? Wave to the person who let you into traffic week? French kiss your Barista month can’t be far behind.
If you feel some irrepressible need to have a conversation with someone you’ve never met, do the proper thing and do it on Facebook or Twitter. Or in the comments section of your favourite on-line publication, where meaningful dialogue and well-considered conversations rule the day. There, you’ll have the freedom to say whatever you want while enjoying the protection of your ill-considered user name or lame alias, with no one breathing on you.
But talking to someone you’ve never met, face to face?
I’d rather wear a puffy shirt.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.