Living like no one is watching

Or why some Haligonians would benefit from a little more self-consciousness 

When I was in my teens and 20s, I spent a lot of time combing my hair. I cared a great deal about how I looked to others. 

But it wasn’t just about physical appearance. It was more about how I came across as a person. I thought it was important to be perceived as “together” — reasonably smart, organized, and emotionally contained. 

Crying or raging in front of strangers was not a good look. Anytime the proverbial excrement was hitting the fan I was inscrutable, poker face firmly in place. 

I wasn’t alone in believing people would notice and judge. A psychologist friend tells me research shows 11-year-old girls think everyone is looking at them pretty much all the time. 

But there’s been a radical societal shift. People aren’t as worried about how they’re seen in public any more. 

The first time I witnessed this was on a train in France just over a decade ago. A 20-something girl sat down across from us and proceeded to take selfies. She vamped and vogued for her phone, lips pursing, breasts pushed out, apparently unaware that my children and I were watching her, mouths open in complete astonishment. 

She didn’t give us a second thought, and clearly couldn’t care less about what we were thinking. 

That kind of oblivion about who might be around and witnessing your behaviour is now widespread. When I see someone walking down the street alone in full conversation, sometimes gesturing dramatically, I’ve stopped thinking they’re suffering from auditory delusions. 

They’re just talking to someone on their phone. And they don’t care who’s watching. 

Maybe this freedom from concerns about the appraisal of others is a good thing. Part of me kind of admires it. But I’m not sure it’s healthy. It looks more like self-absorption and disregard for others than throwing off the burden of social constraint. 

A friend told me about sitting in the Halifax Public Gardens while a woman on the bench next to him had a heated phone argument with someone. When he got up to move to a quieter spot, she noticed him for the first time, blurting “It’s not like I’m on speaker,” as if he was the one being rude! 

She truly didn’t see or care that she was making him uncomfortable. 

I had a similar experience at the gym the other morning. A young woman was stretching, while having a loud and emotional conversation through her ear buds. Her back was to me but she was facing a large mirror so I could see her expressions, which became increasingly tortured. She was wiping away tears, oblivious to the unwilling witnesses in the room. 

We were all increasingly uncomfortable, and feeling bad for her. But is the gym the right place to passionately discuss your breakup? 

It’s interesting how technology has changed our self-perception and reduced our self-consciousness in public spaces, even as social media has made us more self-aware. It’s a global phenomenon, particularly noticable in a place like Halifax, a community historically seen as more staid than flamboyant. 

In our online lives, people curate and groom their feeds to look happy and successful; to look “together,” as I used to try to do by keeping my hair combed. 

People who are impervious to how they are perceived in public spend hours curating social media feeds, artistically photographing themselves, their food and fancy cocktails, their vacations, their fabulous lives. Because on Instagram it counts. That’s the gaze and the audience that matters. 

Our personas have become virtual, and what’s important is how we appear in our virtual worlds. 

Maybe keeping a poker face in at all times isn’t a healthy thing. But neither is a complete lack of concern about everyone around you. 

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