The final piece in the puzzle of transforming LA into a more dense, Asian-style megalopolis entails massive improvements to mass transportation.
To be fair, LA County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been constructing an six-line “Metro Rail” network, consisting of two heavy and four light rail lines, over the last three decades. Two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines round out LA’s modern mass transit system.
At the same time, municipal planning documents such as the City of Los Angeles’s Mobility Plan 2035 propose dedicate bus lanes on arterial thoroughfares across the city.
But the regional growth corridors anticipated for an Asian-style city require a more wider-reaching network, that not only crosses county lines but integrates mainline(i.e. “Commuter”) rail with the subway/light rail network.
As I discussed in my previous article, many of Los Angeles’ extant job corridors parallel existing mainline rail lines, which run Metrolink Commuter Rail trains. Unfortunately, because Metrolink shares track with private freight railroads, it cannot operate reliable service on much of its network. The Riverside Line, whose track is owned by the Union Pacific (freight) railroad, runs only nine trains in day (with no reverse commute service)!
Furthermore, many of the lines have broad stop spacing (following an American commuter rail tradition), with station density higher on the suburban fringe. The Orange County Line has only two stations along the twenty-mile segment between Downtown Los Angeles and Buena Park. The Ventura County Line stops at only three locations as it passes through moderately dense, industrial/residential neighborhoods in the North San Fernando Valley.
As Let’s Go LA wrote a few years ago, the San Fernando Valley segment of the Ventura County Line, the Orange County Line (north of Irvine), and the entire San Bernardino Line, should all be upgraded to a “rapid transit” or “express” service. This would entail high service frequency, narrower station spacing (1 to 5 miles) and electrified (i.e. non-diesel “clunker”) stock.
Through-running of trains onto subway tracks in cities like Seoul and Tokyo enables a higher level of subway, commuter-rail integration. Seoul Metro Line 1, for instance, integrates subway tracks in the center of Seoul with commuter rail service to far-flung suburbs like Suwon, allowing rapid-transit services from the Central Business District to penetrate the metro area’s most distant reaches.
Let’s Go LA suggests such a set-up connecting the San Bernardino and Purple Lines, creating a single rapid transit line from San Bernardino to the Pacific Ocean (if I have time during the week, I will try to map out a concept of what this might look like).
Commuter rail aside, the subway/light rail network need to be expanded in a less radial fashion, accounting for the prominent role of the Santa Monica/Wilshire corridor.
Subway/commuter rail integration and subway expansion, regardless of the particular projects needs to meet a certain budget. This will require lowering LA’s construction costs to match those of peer cities in East Asia and Europe.
This concludes my responses to the question of how LA can urbanize like an East Asian megacity. Leave your feedback below.
Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes.
This second article in a series of responses to my piece examines how LA can densify following regional growth corridors, rather than concentrating in a single, high-rise downtown.
Like Los Angeles, Seoul is not only sprawling but “poly-centric”. A study from the early 1990s found that the city of Seoul alone had between three and twelve activity centers. A 2011 text on urban planning practices across the Korean Peninsula found that the Seoul Metropolitan area had three major centers: around the traditional Seoul CBD (around Seoul Station, north of the Han River), Gangnam (in the city of Seoul, south of the Han River) and in Incheon.
More than twenty locations met the authors’ qualifying criteria (20,000 jobs per square kilometer with total employment exceeding 50,000) for “jobs centers,” despite not sufficiently explaining employment distribution in the study’s model (examining the effects of the national government’s “Greenbelt” policy on Seoul’s growth).
Seoul’s polycentrism comes across more clearly when one examines a to-scale subway map of the region. A number of lines converge around the Central Business District. But the dominant pattern is of a tighter grid in and around Seoul city (with multiple employment districts rivaling Downtown LA) giving way to a more loosely-spaced grid around Incheon (the largest employment center outside Seoul City). As one travels to the south and north, urban development clusters along subway and commuter rail lines. Suwon, the largest city in Gyeonggi Province, lies at the junction of a subway and rail line.
Los Angeles, likewise, is a very polycentric city, with “employment centers” in locations ranging from Thousand Oaks down to the Irvine Spectrum. A UC Irvine study found that, from 1997 to 2014, employment “center” locations shifted 20 kilometers closer to downtown on average, and towards areas with passenger rail or freeway access.
Although job concentrations in Greater Los Angeles, are somewhat dispersed, they coalesce around a few distinct freeway and commuter rail corridors. The I-5/Ventura County Line corridor from Irvine to Simi Valley via Burbank; the I-405 corridor from Beverly Hills south to Long Beach; the San Bernardino and Riverside Line corridors from Downtown east to San Bernardino and Riverside; the 91 corridor from Riverside to Corona and the 15 corridor from Riverside to Temecula.
Urban cultural attractions and activity centers cluster more tightly around the “Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor’, stretching from Downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean (along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards). This corridor also connects two of Los Angeles’ main job clusters and contains the region’s highest density neighborhoods.
Rather than simply bolstering Downtown-or even the City of Los Angeles as a whole-, regional governing entities like SCAG should direct job and housing density towards defined regional growth corridors, in tandem with developing frequent, heavy-rail transit links along and between these corridors.
The development could follow a hierarchy similar to Seoul’s. The highest density of housing and jobs would cluster along the Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor, served by a tight grid of rail and Bus Rapid Transit (which the street network is well-adapted to). This could feed into another high-density axis, paralleling the 405 from Beverly Hills down to Long Beach. Less intense (but still mid-to-high density) residential and job development would abut the outlying corridors (which have less development to begin with).
Success demands that Los Angeles integrate its subway/light rail and commuter rail networks, making the latter a more reliable transit alternative.
State intervention may prove necessary.
And neighborhoods like Hancock Park, that occupy an excessive quantity of high-value of land, in the heart of the metropolis, must finally accept change.
Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes. LA’s Downtown-focused redevelopment model encourages gentrification and limits new development to the point where it fails to make a dent in regional home prices (if not causing home prices to rise in areas being redeveloped-as the new housing in these areas becomes more desirable to the urban bourgeoisie).
What steps can LA achieve to urbanize its vast expanse like Seoul (or Tokyo or Taipei for that matter?). Over the next few days, I will attempt to answer this question through a series of articles. Today’s examines the effect of residential neighborhoods’ built environments on travel behavior.
As in American cities, most neighborhoods in Seoul have a pretty clear street hierarchy. Take the Bongcheon-Dong neighborhod in the southern part of the city, for instance.
The residential streets (example in blue) are little wider than alleyways, with cars and pedestrians sharing the single lane. These empty out onto 1-2 lane neighborhood-serving commercial streets, with small shops or farmer’s markets stalls to serve the community (example in yellow). Finally, six-to-eight-lane arterials (red) ring the edge of the neighborhood. Like Sepulveda and Wilshire Boulevards, these behemoths carry torrents of motorized vehicle (auto and bus) traffic.
Tokyo has a similar hierarchy .
The arterial streets have taller buildings and more transit service than those in Los Angeles, but their street width is actually more hostile to pedestrians. Nevertheless, the Sillim bus stop, along one of Bongcheon-Dong’s (Seoul’s) main arterials, has among the highest number of boardings in South Korea. This confirms my long-found suspicion that the built environment surrounding residential streets influences travel behavior as strongly as that surrounding commercial arterials.
Think about it. Residential streets provide the first-last mile connection between one’s home and any destination they are trying to access. The presence (or absence) of retail and grocery stores around the corner determines whether a person will drive to a big box store to obtain necessities (most often accommodated through trip-chaining on a work commute).
So far, most complete streets work in LA has focused on arterials. For instance, the Mayor’s Office’s LA Great Streets program focuses on major thoroughfares like Venice Boulevard, Robertson Boulevard, and Reseda Boulevard. The city of Los Angeles’s Mobility Plan 2035 downgraded arterial street standards but left local and collector street standards largely untouched.
To be fair, “narrowing” residential streets to Seoul- or Tokyo-style standards would require significant investment (even without political opposition), and the Mobility Plan downgrading intended to avert proposed widening rather than reduce street dimensions. Permitting developers to build into the right-of-way (a reverse form of “setback”) is a possible option, but one prone to a lengthy timeframe and haphazard implementation.
However, improved traffic-calming infrastructure, like bulb-outs and curb extensions, would make residential streets considerably less menacing. Opening up residential streets to cars and bikes would permit even more radical transformation.
Most importantly, loosening height and land use restrictions in residential neighborhoods will facilitate the clustering of homes and small businesses needed to support a car-free lifestyle. These changes are politically contentious in California, but not impossible to achieve.
To summarize, the following policies would help urbanize LA’s residential suburbs, a la Seoul:
Densification (no more Hancock Parks or San Marinos)
Relax zoning in residential neighborhoods (side streets in Palms need more corner-stores and bars)
Open up residential streets to bicyclists and pedestrians. Implement traffic calming measures and signage to compel drivers to respectfully share the road. Mayor Garcetti’s post-COVID 19 “Slow Streets” initiative could be a start.
End parking minimums (which attract cars into a neighborhood and reduce developments’ buildable area).
Densify arterial streets as well. Use their copious capacity to provide BRT or Rail Transit service.
The COVID-19 crisis provides the most visible evidence yet that reducing automobile use in Los Angeles would drastically improve the region’s air quality.
Longer term, California must cut down on vehicle travel in order to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions and stave off climate change.
Contrary to what one might expect, the biggest challenge in Southern California is not necessarily infrastructure (although America’s high subway construction costs impede development) but land use.
Limited housing development, particularly in jobs-rich areas like the Westside, has led to rising home prices, displacing low- and mid-income households to the suburban periphery. This forces populations that might have once relied on active or public transportation to buy automobiles and commute long distances to work.
The current development dynamics in Los Angeles concentrate density in Downtown and surrounding Eastside neighborhoods. This strategy is partly the result of staunch opposition to development from inner suburban homeowners. But it also reflects a business and political leadership’s desire to copy the East Coast (i.e. Manhattan) by centering the poly-centric metropolis around a high-rise “core.”
As I have written previously, this focus on “re-developing” the inner city encourages the very gentrification that up-zoning should combat. It also fails to develop enough to make a dent in housing prices.
Rather than try to recreate the 19th-century cities of East Coast or Europe, Los Angeles should build out like the twentieth- and twenty-first mega-cities of East Asia.
The mid- to high-dense, amorphous sprawl of Seoul and Tokyo more closely matches the urban development pattern of Los Angeles than the ordered core-and-periphery pattern of Chicago, New York or London.
Developing housing and transit along East Asian lines would result in higher transit use, lower emissions and a more vibrant economy. It would also counteract a longstanding tradition of marginalizing East Asia in policy discussions.
Seoul vs. LA and the Euro-Atlantic City
For starters, let’s compare LA to New York and Seoul, South Korea.
Both Seoul and LA’s urbanized areas cover a broad swath of territory. Greater Los Angeles extends for more than 130 miles–from Ventura to Temecula. The Seoul Capital Area, which incorporates Gyeonggi Province and the independent cities of Seoul and Incheon, encompasses more than 12 percent of South Korea’s landmass.
Seoul sprawls densely. Travel 18 miles west of Seoul’s Central Business District, to Incheon’s Seongnam-Dong neighborhood, and you’ll still find yourself in a compact urban setting.
The neighborhood’s narrow streets, moderately-tall buildings (relative to the street) and diverse street-fronting land uses, make the area easily accessible by foot.
Los Angeles is frequently derided as “one giant suburb.” But its expansive suburbs are quite built up.
Travel 18 miles south of Downtown Los Angeles, to north-central Long Beach and you’re still in a neighborhood of small parcels and tight street grids. Development intensities are lower than in Seoul but higher than in the stereotypical suburb. On the residential streets, two to three story apartment buildings alternate with single-family homes. Pacific Coast Highway’s auto shops and strip malls leave a lot to be desired but some of the north-south streets like Pacific Avenue have more street-fronting retail.
By contrast, traveling 18 miles east of Midtown Manhattan brings you to Long Island’s Garden City, an almost exclusively residential area, dominated by single-family homes on spacious lots.
Its the same story with London.
The Euro-Atlantic core-periphery development model contains density within an envelope that both LA and Seoul greatly exceed.
As in LA, both jobs and population have dispersed in Seoul in recent years. As early as 1997, suburbs like Incheon and Suwon rivaled the central area of Seoul in employment.
Except Seoul’s suburban density is denser and more walkable than LA’s.
What Makes Seoul’s Suburbs a Model for LA’s?
I will get more into the specifics of what LA can do in a future article. Some general pointers:
The streets are narrower, making it more difficult to drive (since the streets can’t accommodate “peak period” vehicle congestion) and easier to cross the street.
The buildings are taller, more tightly spaced and more mixed-use in nature, reducing walking distances between different activity points. Note: LA’s zoning laws prohibit this!
The rapid transit system (subway+commuter rail) is more extensive, with a less radial focus. Seongnam-do is served by a subway line running on a north-south axis through Incheon. This connects with both the employment centers by the port of Incheon (to the south) and an east/west line (to the north) connecting to Downtown Seoul. LA, by contrast, follows the Chicago/New York model of routing rail (and many bus) lines to converge on Downtown.
Private cars only have a 23.5 percent mode share in Seoul, compared to a 70 percent mode share in LA. Almost 40 percent of Seoul-ites travel by subway and another 28 percent travel by bus.
On the other hand, the average cost for a studio in a “normal” neighborhood in Seoul is only 537 dollars.
All aerials and streetview scenes courtesy of Google Maps.
The only countries in the world that have effectively contained COVID-19 have been in high-income East Asia. Despite strong travel links and economic ties to Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong staved off the mass infection now afflicting Europe and the US through early deployment of social distancing measures (including public mask-wearing and mandatory quarantine of infected individuals) and travel restrictions. South Korea contained its outbreak “curve”–the worst in the world in February–through extensive testing, followed by contact tracing (through both personal interviews and GPS-based mobile tracking) of positive cases.
The examples are not merely informative but instructive. While infection rates slow in most of Europe and United States, suggesting containment in the near future, removing lock-downs on either side of the Atlantic will be incredibly risky unless leaders follow East Asia’s lead in detecting and isolating infected individuals.
Unfortunately, while both Europe and the US seek to emulate South Korea’s drive-thru testing procedure, much of European and US public opinion seems skeptical about the adoption of mobile contact tracing used in South Korea and Taiwan. A perceived cultural difference pops up repeatedly in the skeptics’ arguments.
For instance, Vox’s Ezra Klein casts doubt on a Harvard University plan to develop a nationwide tracking app (of positive test results) by acknowledging that “while similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture.” A BBC article on the subject contrasts western “liberal democracies” with countries like “China, Singapore and South Korea”, implying that mobile contact tracing is more acceptable in the autocratic “East” than in the democratic “West.”
Its not just mobile contact tracing which encounters this dismissive mindset. Renee C. Wurth, a Public Health Professor at Northwestern University, warns that East Asian societies’ widespread face mask use does not make this an essential strategy for combating COVID-19 in the west: Rather, it is Asia’s “community-oriented cultures,” that are the true key to their success.
By insisting that Asian countries are fundamentally different from the West, these dismissals of Asian policy successes reveal the tenacious persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about East Asia.
Since the time of Marco Polo, the Western World has perceived East Asia as irredeemably “exotic” and “mysterious.”
The image of the Orient as a threatening and monolithic “Other”–replete with strange foods, secretive rituals and persons who were not quite human–took hold over the centuries. This construct, which post-colonial scholars refer to as Orientalism, reached its zenith at the end of the 19th-century, when Western Powers encroached on East Asia.
Social Scientists developed grand theories, based on ecology (e.g. Marx’ “Oriental Despotism” hypothesis, which held that control of irrigation systems led to stagnant bureaucracies in Eastern polities) or culture (e.g. Confucianism as a cause of China’s decline) to explain Europe’s advancement relative to East Asia. Although objective on the surface, such theories implicitly justified Western hegemony relative to East Asia, and portrayed Asia as an “ontologically-different entity” (in the words of one historian) from the West-the former being fundamentally incomparable to the latter and requiring neither depth or nuance in analysis.
ln popular culture, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War fueled fears of a “Yellow Peril”-an invasion of Europe by barbaric hordes. In the United States, opponents of Chinese immigration to California spread lurid rumors of Chinese consuming rats and other unsavory foodstuffs.
Early reporting on COVID-19’s origins at a wet market revealed the endurance of Orientalist stereotype of Chinese consumption of exotic foods.
And as Asian countries have emerged at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19, Orientalism lurks beneath the surface of western public opinion’s disregard for their policy successes.
For instance, Wurth’s opinion on the irrelevance East Asian mask-wearing, borrows from the trope that Confucian culture is a determining factor in the region’s mores. Instead of using the concept to explain East Asian stagnation, she touts it as a reason for the region’s advancement. Nevertheless, the concept still renders the region as “foreign,” albeit for the purpose of drawing policy best practices.
Moreover, Wurth, Klein and other writers have tended to describe East Asian countries’ policy success in collective terms, ignoring vast differences in policy and society. Discussing Singapore, a one-party state, and South Korea, a democratic presidential republic, in the same breath makes as little sense as equating the United Kingdom with Franco-era Spain. And yet, the fact that East Asia is not Europe permits such abstraction.
Nuances and details in East Asian policies are also ignored. The Toronto Star quotes an expert saying that South Korean contract tracing would “never work” in a western democracy, ignoring the fact that a) South Korea is a democracy and b) contact tracing app has also raised privacy concerns within South Korea. I have heard similar statements made by Twitter users:
Finally, Atlantic Magazine has published profiles in courage on Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern but none on (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in or (Taiwanese President) Tsai Ing-Wen (the latter has earned a paragraph in an article on female leadership in combating COVID).
The hard truth is that Westerners still regard even developed Alien countries as alien: Robotic marvels that can earn a plaudit or two but never be seriously emulated or examined.
To be clear, this is not just a media issue (and there are some great articles like this WIRED one on Taiwan). Nor did this problem suddenly reappear with COVID-19. Over the years, I have received strange looks and remarks when I point to Japan as an example for American commuter rail planning.
But now the stakes are much higher.
If we (in the United States and Europe) don’t want to contend with a two-year lockdown or hundreds of thousands of more deaths, we will have to acknowledge some hard truths:
South Korea is the only country in the world to have stamped out a large-scale (1000+) COVID-19 outbreak. There is no excuse for throwing out examples like New Zealand (which instituted a lockdown when there were only 100 cases) or Germany (which-despite mass testing-has over 100,000 cases and 5,000 diseases, with no signs of letting down).
Stamping out COVID demands that Western Countries evaluate South Korea’s (and Taiwan’s and even Vietnam’s) policies in detail and determine how they can legally design and implement such policies.
The belief that the West is the standard-bearer of progress, and therefore has nothing to learn from culturally- or geographically-distinct regions, is no longer true. Its high time we face up.
Binge-watching Netflix seems to be an acceptable pastime for once. Not only do we have more time on our couches (now that we’re not commuting for an hour or going out after work) but we all need to escape the grim reality, at least for a few hours.
Offering plenty of scandal, sex and adrenaline-rushing escapes, Babylon Berlin is a show designed for binge watching, and (for better or worse) ironically foretells our current predicament.
The show is set in Berlin in the “Golden Twenties”, a zeitgeist by both political instability and cultural hedonism and progressivism.
It is a world where cross-dressing nightclub singers moonlight as Soviet-employed assassins. Where nudist lake outings and police massacres of left-wing protesters occur simultaneously.And where a shell-shocked grizzled army veteran produces illicit lewd films.
Into this melange steps Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne who has been temporarily summoned to Berlin under surreptitious circumstances. Although ostensibly working with the vice squad, Rath ends up being drawn into a homicide investigation that unravels a complex web of conspiracies (I haven’t reached the end yet, so I can’t reveal how it unfolds) involving mutinous Reichswehr (army) officers, pro-Trotsky communists, a mafiosi nightclub mogul, a trove of gold and even Rath’s police department colleagues.
The plot and cinematography are so furtively adroit, revealing major backstories and side plots-in pieces-through a glimpse of binoculars or a brief flashback, as to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. The fact that nearly every character has some fishy doppelganger heightens the suspense.
And yet, the most powerful part of the series is the strange hindsight it offers in our current predicament.
Only a-month-and-a-half ago I was frequenting gay nightclubs on a weekly basis. The West Hollywood nightlife-almost as libertine as Weimar Berlin’s-carried on with full force despite the ominous illness seeping into the country.
Like the Berlin of Babylon, our republic was in a precarious state. Politicians routinely flouted democratic norms and connived with foreign powers. Inequality ran rampant. Gun violence was a part of daily life.
But if you were part of the middling urban bourgeoisie, with just enough of a paycheck to indulge in cocktails or pour-over coffee on the weekend, you could rationalize everything away, or forget it even existed.
Until the economy stopped…
Anyone with a basic knowledge of European history knows what will happen next in the Babylon story: the 1929 Stock Market Crash will lead to totalitarianism, which will lead to the bloodiest war in Germany’s history.
We’re past the crash phase now. Which is why watching Babylon arouses such a strong feeling of nostalgia.
Life is short. History is long.
When will I be able to frequent nightclubs again without the risk of contracting a terrifying illness? Where will our turbulent geopolitics take us?
These thoughts don’t usually linger. I am always too giddy to move on to the next episode.
And even when they do, my feelings ultimately move from despair to contemplation.
One discreet message I pick up from Babylon:
A corrupt society is probably not worth retaining, regardless of its temptations.
The Spanish word brava literally translates to English as “brave” or “rough.”
And yet, while Spain’s bravas sauce often (but not always) has a spicy kick to it, the flavor is not as stringent as the name implies.
Usually incorporating a hefty dose of Paprika, chicken broth and tomato sauce, bravas is simultaneously pungent and delicate. It is intensely fragrant, and rich in flavor, without overpowering the taste buds. If condiments were paintings, bravas would be the Mona Lisa.
In Spain, restaurants only serve bravas with potatoes, as part of a tapas plate.
But I’ve found it goes equally well on rice, pasta and (Mexican) tortilla chips.
Here is my recipe.
1 large Garlic Clove, minced
2 tablespoons of unseasoned Tomato Sauce
1-2 tablespoons of Olive Oil
2 1/2 Teaspoons of Paprika*
1/2 Teaspoon Black Pepper**
1/3 cup Chicken Broth
Cooking Time: 5 minutes. Makes enough for two servings of Patatas Bravas + two servings of Pasta
Heat Olive Oil in a small saucepan. Add minced Garlic and saute for 1 minute.
Add Tomato Sauce and Paprika and stir for 30 seconds.
Add Chicken Broth and stir. Let simmer for three minutes.
After this you have two options:
To make Patatas Bravas: Pour sauce over roasted or fried potatoes. Mix 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise with 1/2 teaspoon of minced garlic to make a garlic aioli. Add aioli to the potatoes with sauce, toss and serve.
For other uses: Pour over rice, pasta, chips or whatever else serves your fancy…!
I had a busy social calendar in February. I went out to bars and coffeeshops every weekend, where I chatted and flirted with both friends and strangers. I kind of miss those days.
Nor surprisingly, COVID-19 was rarely mentioned in these conversations.
Americans are notorious for shying away from unpleasant topics in conversations. As the saying goes, “never talk about politics, religion and death.”
Vox’s David Roberts, notes how “small talk” in conversations between strangers or at social events serves a purpose of social bonding, rather than conveying information. Thus, small topic focuses on “topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.”
However, as my past life experience shows, keeping our conversations light and cushy prevents us from confronting issues of grave importance.
Imagine if we had talked about COVID-19 at the bar. We might have thought about social distancing earlier or even demanded answers from officials hesitant to tell the truth.
In the long run, Climate change poses an even greater threat to our existence, but is still considered too awkward and “nerdy” for the cocktail party.
By neglecting such topics of social importance, we fail our civic duty as citizens of a democracy to stay informed on the issues we vote on.
Some might argue that you can only have a good conversation with a person who is knowledgeable of the subject at hand. Yet, conversations about the weather are a core part of small talk, and we aren’t all meteorologists…
This is not to degrade small talk’s role in facilitating social bonding. A certain exchange of niceties at the beginning of a conversation is psychologically needed to initiate contact. This opening small talk should be differentiated from the dominance of superficial yet agreeable topics in many conversations.
Indeed, American small talk’s aversion to uncomfortable topics discourages people from opening up about their personal troubles or struggles. By foregoing topics that make them vulnerable, participants in a conversation lose an opportunity to establish a deep connection. By pushing discomfort, pain and anguish under the rug, conversational norms further a harmful stigmatization of mental health.
Having struggled with Obssessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Asperger’s traits for much of my life, I can vouch for the last point being far from trivial.
Much of the pain and depression I have experienced in my adult life might have been assuaged if I felt more comfortable sharing my feelings with others.
In the current crisis, let’s resist the urge to deflect conversations and shame “negativity” or geekiness.
Let’s give ourselves (and others) space to share and listen, to love and to learn.