As we sink into the deep depression that signals the impending doom of winter, we search for ways to make ourselves warm again, inside and out. People turn on the Christmas music way too early and pull out their favorite sweaters with the hope that these small efforts will stave off the inevitable arctic chill. But in Washington, D.C., I’ve noticed a new and different method of keeping warm — the community. Here, people have relied on other people in ways that I have never before noticed in Ann Arbor and, as students, we could learn a thing or two from this metropolitan territory with Midwest kindness.

In D.C. there aren’t many places to study. Our Michigan in Washington cohort ends up studying in makeshift study lounges, which are really abandoned classrooms in our dorm or in the ever-present Starbucks. In Ann Arbor, at any coffee shop all you can see are students typing away at their computers, dark circles encompassing their eyes as they scratch furiously at the keys, hoping their final paper will suffice. They hardly look up, too engrossed in texting their friends about plans for the evening and blasting the electronic dance music that will help them make it through the homework pain.

In D.C., however, the vibe is different. No longer on campus, there are people of all ages and all colors and sizes at Starbucks. There is a communal bar table in the middle of the shop filled with singles reading newspapers, families with babies, 30-year-olds eating sandwiches and little old men drinking espresso. Less than half of the people are plugged into a device and I feel like an outsider for doing so. There’s a woman with her architecture drawings spread out on a shorter table and right next to her a stranger reads the newspaper. Two old men who are apparently complete strangers strike up a conversation. One tells the other about his upcoming trip to South America and the latter launches into a story about his world travels. Soon the two are friends, exchanging e-mail addresses on little slips of paper. I notice this interaction and smile because it feels like a small town — it’s warm and friendly.

The truth is, people are anxious that technology is pulling us further apart as humans and making us interact less, when I would argue just the opposite, it just depends on where you are. My favorite example of this phenomenon is Uber, the smartphone app that allows you to call up a car to drive you anywhere with a wait time of usually less than five minutes no matter where you are in the city. The catch is that Uber hires civilian drivers. Virtually anyone can sign up to become an Uber driver and (after a background check and driving history check) they can escort people around just by turning on their app whenever they have time. In D.C., we take Uber everywhere. It’s cheaper than taxis and instantaneous.

When I first heard about this service I thought anyone who took it must be crazy. We’re the kids who grew up in a generation where you can’t trick-or-treat alone for fear of being abducted by a pedophile; we don’t get in strangers’ cars. Yet technology has allowed us to do just that, and has given us a wonderful sense of human trust and a much-needed human interaction. Through taking Uber nearly three times a week, I’ve met some pretty cool drivers. More than half the time I take an Uber I end up having a really interesting conversation with someone and listening to his or her funny story about the drunken guy last night who was sitting in my place in the backseat. Sometimes I even get advice about somewhere I have to go in D.C. before I leave. The point is, they’re normal people for the most part and I’ve never felt unsafe. In fact, I love the human interaction. It warms the soul to come in contact with friendly people regularly.

Uber isn’t an anomaly. Airbnb is another service with a similar idea, except instead of taxis it targets hotels. Airbnb is an app where you can find a room in someone’s home or their entire home and rent it at a low price for the night or for several nights in cities around the world. Past guests evaluate all of the people who rent out and you can read reviews and see pictures of the space before you commit. While it sounds sketchy, it’s actually a charming (and economical) idea. One of my roommates recently used Airbnb in New York City and had a wonderful experience. The woman who hosted her was thinking of opening up a home for battered and abused women and was garnering advice on how best to run a shelter. My roommate enjoyed staying with her and said she would stay with her again. The woman I stayed with during a separate trip wanted to open a bed and breakfast in the future and currently runs a yoga studio out of her home. She was friendly and easy to communicate with. Most of the people who sign up to host are looking for human interaction. They’re welcoming and accommodating and frankly it’s a reprieve from the cutthroat University of Michigan fighting-for-the-curve attitude.

While there is a difference between D.C. and Ann Arbor because diversity of age and profession is more varied off campus, that doesn’t mean the human interaction should be any less. In fact, you would think human interaction on campus would be greater because everyone is young. But as I’ve written time and time again, I feel like Ann Arbor is polarized: people stick to their own groups, their own races, their own fraternities and sororities and their own friends they made freshman year. The hashtag #nonewfriends is funny but uncomfortably true in Ann Arbor. While I’m guilty of having fallen prey to this idea myself, there’s something to say for how you can make someone’s day just by a small act of human kindness or interaction. They don’t have to become your best friend. You just have to be open to human interaction — and take out the headphones every once in awhile.

Maura Levine can be reached at mtoval@umich.edu.

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