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When Did We Become Indifferent to Strangers?

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Growing up on a gravel road in Bucyrus, Kan., a car... any car... and especially a car we didn't know was a big deal. We'd run out to the road and wave at the adult behind the wheel as the dust clouds of the speeding car settled. Strangers were a rare fruit. We never took them for granted.

Now many of my days are in airports in London and Helsinki. We strangers pass one another like frozen chicken nuggets on a conveyer belt.

This stark difference hit me as we wind our way through security. My embarrassing admission. Frisk me. Question me. X-ray me. Just don't make me take off my shoes. My latent briophobia (anxiety about going barefoot) had been dormant until this Homeland Security rule came about. I am fine to be barefoot anywhere BUT a large public space. Every time I have to leave my shoes on a conveyor belt and walk barefoot on that germ-infected floor I start shallow breathing. (I've tried bringing my own flip flops, slippers and a variety of non-shoe shoes. If you've gotten around this please let me know.)

I was bending over to take my shoes off and I bumped into the man behind me in line, who was in a wheelchair. The line snaked behind him as he struggled to reach the double knot in his tennis shoes. His arms were long enough to get at the double knots in his tennis shoes. Being from Kansas, I snapped out of my briophobiac stupor, untied his shoes and put them on the conveyor belt. No biggie. "Thank you. In 35 years of traveling no one has ever done that for me." He said. The sadness in his voice stabbed me. For 35 years fellow travelers had dashed passed his struggle.

Unfortunately, scientists tell us it may be getting worse. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. In a recent piece in the New York Times she stated, "We've become accustomed to a new way of being 'alone together.'"

Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party. A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation."

How often have we each been so embroiled in our own petty dramas that we breeze past someone in trouble? My hand is raised. How about yours? How often have we each walk past a person that needs help? If your blood pressure rose as you ran errands or were crammed into a plane or train, here are some ways to help.

The Eyes Have It

Take a break from your gizmo of choice. Take an hour to have conversations where you look a friend, college or dare I say it, a stranger, in the eyes.

The Italian Kansas Formula

Back on the gravel roads of Bucyrus, Kan., my mom would pull off to the side of the road to share some small talk with neighbors. (Our closest neighbor was a quarter of a mile away... so it didn't happen often.) My sister now lives in Italy. I see this same ritual happen at the bakery in Milan as well as the back roads of Umbria.

The INAY Movement

One of the challenges of technology is that it is always about you. Your tweet, your status, your link. INAY = It's Not About You. Let's start a movement that isn't about us. Let's leap out of our own dramas and looks someone in the eyes.

It is up to you and I to help someone tie or untie their shoe.

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Eli Davidson is a nationally recognized motivational speaker and executive coach. Her book, "Funky to Fabulous: Surefire Success Stories for the Savvy, Sassy and Swamped" (Oak Grove Publishing) has won three national book awards. Check out her blog at funkytofabulous.blogspot.com.

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