Last week, I wrote about the ways that dogs can be useful social objects--and you had lots of good comments and input. This week, I'm hoping you can help solve a mystery on a similar topic.
You see, I've found another object that's a successful stranger-to-stranger social enabler, but this one is harder to understand. It's a rollercoaster; specifically, it's the 100 year old wooden coaster on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, the Giant Dipper. A couple months ago, I rode the Dipper for the first time. While standing on line, I noticed something surprising: when a car full of riders came back to the boarding area after their ride, people in line stuck out their hands to slap the hands of the riders in the car. I went back a couple months later to photograph it.
Step 1: people on line wait for rollercoaster.
Step 2: people see car is coming and stick out their hands.
Step 3: a successful "five" is given.
Why does this happen? It's not because the boardwalk is a social place. Sure, it's social, but people stick to their own "pods"--families, teens, adults--and don't diverge or merge. If you were to go out on the boardwalk proper, teeming with people on a summer night, and stuck your hand out, no one would give you five. So why do they do it at the rollercoaster?
Maybe it's because people are excited about the ride. Maybe it's because people waiting in line are bored and want something to break up the monotony. But the best reason I can imagine has to do with barriers and shared experience. Out on the boardwalk, or at the zoo or a museum, there's a common experience of the sights, sounds, smells, activities of the place. But since the spaces are largely open, it feels threatening to approach strangers. You'd have to do it face to face. You could be rejected, or overpursued, or any number of anxiety-inducing possibilities, and you can't hide or reasonably extract yourself from a negative situation.
On the line for the rollercoaster, on the other hand, there's a physical barrier separating the people in line from the people in the car. In fact, it's impossible for people in the car to have any kind of sustained interaction with people in line, because a. they are moving past the line-standers in a car with a restraining bar and b. they are required to leave the building when they depart the car. The interaction between strangers is necessarily short. There is a foregone conclusion that it will not be prolonged to the discomfort of either party. It's a controlled environment--and while neither individual is in control, the partially limiting barrier makes it feel okay to act atypically.
These "partially limiting barriers" are successful in other venues as well--most notably online, where it is personal anonymity rather than temporal transience that makes the interaction between strangers feel controlled. But it's the same inhibition that allows otherwise shy people to dance with strangers at clubs--for some people, loud music and a less intimate setting are opportunities for social interaction rather than limiters. It's also a reason that people will game with strangers; in that case, the games' rules form the partial barrier that facilitates social interaction.
But I'm not so sure of this. How do you interpret the Giant Dipper hand slapping? Where do you see barriers used as springboards for social behavior?