Out of the ordinary – when everyone shakes their head

In the subway or in the tram – Whenever it happens, there are embarrassed looks

Who doesn’t know it? When a stranger on public transport talks loudly to himself and everyone looks at each other conspiratorially to reassure each other that they too perceive this one person as strange? Confirming glances.

Non-compliant behaviour has become more common in recent years

Whether it’s the pensioner who keeps having her teeth snap out, the woman in the tram who talks loudly to herself about her debts, or the man who has peed himself several times – apparently homeless and arguing loudly with an invisible comrade – these people confuse us because they are out of the ordinary. The rules for social interaction are unspoken and yet strict.

The sociologist Harold Garfinkel has demonstrated with impressive crisis experiments how strict these rules actually are. The risk is no less than the loss of personal rights if you do not comply.

The rules make sure that we confirm our normality to each other. As if we were saying wordlessly: “Do you find this person strange as well? Yeah? It’s a good thing we’re the normal ones.” – Speechless exclusion that only needs a few glances.

More and more often I encounter interpersonal anomalies

The cities are getting crowded. Everything and everyone wants to move to the city. For the first time in history, over half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and around the globe people are moving from the countryside to the city

This can be seen in traffic jams on the streets, lack of parking space and overcrowded public transport. At the same time, mental illness has increased in the world of work. And also the “strange ones” that you meet in shopping centres, at the train station or on public transport.

Is this a consequence of digitalisation?

I remember when I did a commercial apprenticeship in the mid-eighties: I wrote a letter – carefully and slowly, because with manual typewriter.

If I made a mistake, I couldn’t correct it, but had to retype the whole page (unbelievable that today I type in a blog and can publish it within seconds – even globally: What a rapid development).

Then I put the letter in the envelope, put a stamp on it and took it to the post office. The recipient received the letter the next day at the earliest and went through the same ritual. In sum, this meant that such a process did not put me back into action three or four days ago.

And today? Today I write an email – get a reply with a work order back within five minutes. Not only that – there are at least five people on the mailing list who also have a wish.

Answering mails has become a ping-pong ball game. And it exhausts! I know quite a few people who are overwhelmed by their inbox. Whole hierarchies are now regulated by the way mailboxes are handled: The further up you go, the more you can afford not to answer your mails. If a third party is paid to maintain your mailbox, you are probably in top management.

And here I am only talking about the digitalisation of commercial professions. I can only imagine activities in which people now work together with robots. As much as we try to make them appear human – they are not yet.

Many people in the city – who have a lot of stress

I understand the fact that I have more and more strange encounters in the city as a correlation of these two factors:

Urbanisation and digitisation

On the one hand the constriction caused by the strong influx into the cities, which expresses its dark side particularly in the massive housing shortage – on the other hand a general uncertainty due to the digitalization of jobs and living environments.

Social life, which is increasingly digitalised and is creating a new way of communicating and bonding.

This is a departure into a new world in which people first have to find a new orientation – in all areas of life. I am convinced that not everyone is up to the challenge. For example, historian Yuval Noah Harari assumes that technological progress will produce a “class of the useless”.

I see digitalisation as a crisis. Full of danger, but also full of possibilities. Yes, for me there is even the possibility of a new world order – even a just one.

I’m an optimist.

I am interested in the stories of these people who have dropped out of conformist behavior

You are not yet in the overcrowded psychiatric institutions of our country. No, they are in our environment and move between us. None of the contemporaries has yet felt called upon to call the police and have a compulsory hospitalization carried out. A glance is still enough to draw the line.

I am interested in the stories of these people. For me, they are the key to what is “normal” in this time of upheaval and transition to the digital world.

In analogy to Norbert Elias and his studies on the process of civilization, I think that the consideration of what is considered non-conformist provides insight into what is conformist. And even more so, what are the great challenges in social interaction today.

At that time Elias studied etiquette books to understand what Usos was in society. For example, if it said, “Don’t wipe your mouth with the tablecloth,” it was an indicator for him that people did so at the table.

Understanding the conspicuous in order to grasp the “new normality

Normality is not universally valid – imagine if you were to catapult people into a subway of today with a time machine from 1975. How would they feel about all those fellow travellers who are absorbed in their small devices?

The very fact that there were cultures where it was common practice to make human sacrifices makes it clear how much a culture’s norms and values can change.

Everyone has their own pace of change and adaptation, not everyone keeps pace with change.

So I would like to ask the strange ones: “How did this happen? What have you experienced, why are you acting so different?”

A mixture of time pressure and cowardice has so far kept me from doing so.

But not for long. After all, as a collector of utopias, I have set myself the goal of collecting utopias and stories from people.

The stories of the strange ones belong to it, as well as the statements of decision-makers and opinion leaders from all areas of social and societal life.

I have lots of theses, but not a single answer. And I may never find one. But at least I’ll have tried.



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