When the cup of emotions runneth over…

In an earlier post I mentioned Antonio Damasio’s latest book – The Strange Order of Things. I have nearly finished reading it. During these months it has stimulated me to contemplate the nature of feelings & emotions & their importance for human primates. Recently, coincidentally, I have also found myself in a few situations where I have had to watch the emotions of others spilling out with potentially unsavory consequences:

  1. A lover’s tiff that spills out into the street.
  2. A man throwing out his ex & her belongings from his apartment in our building.
  3. A protest march where riot police are at the ready.

In the case of the first two situations, these were private affairs between individuals that unfortunately played out in a public space. When emotions run this high usually there is not much thought about the impact of one’s actions on others. In the third case, the collective emotions of a crowd were displayed, united by one cause. In all cases the situation has an element of unpredictability . How it ultimately plays out can also be influenced by the [in]actions of bystanders.

1. Anger exploding to boiling point: One Saturday afternoon my other half & I were having lunch in my favorite brasserie (image below) in the Butte-Aux-Cailles neighborhood.

LesTanneursDeLaButte_01

As we were finishing our coffees we noticed two men emerge from one of the businesses across the street, with the larger one starting to shove & punch the other one. The scuffle continued as they made their way into an apartment building next door. Then we saw a pair of legs on the ground through the glass door of the apartment building’s front door. At that same time one of the waiters from a restaurant next to ours rushed across the street to help out. What to do? As my other half went to pay for the meal, I stood & watched to see if the situation would escalate – and if I should call the Police. Thankfully, it looked like things had settled down – the big burly guy emerged from the apartment building. He saw me standing & watching inside. He made a very aggressive gesture at me – basically the equivalent of “what the hell do you think you are looking at”? The head & body went forward with eyes bulging, the arms went out to the sides in a ballistic manner. He was still clearly angry & wanted to take it out on someone/something… What to do? I made a non-confrontational gesture back – in slow motion & in a non-aggressive manner.  I spread my arms out, pointed my palms to him, put my head to one side & arched my body back a bit – to non-verbally say “whaaaaaat are you doing?”. Then I turned my back & walked over to the counter to the servers hoping that this had defused the situation. Sure enough. Nothing further happened. That said though, I figured that the servers would literally have my back – they would see if he was coming across the street to harm me. I told them what I had seen happen. They did not look particularly perturbed & actually rolled their eyes – it seems like this guy is a bit of a hot head, so there clear is a history to this. Apparently, he owns the business across the road. Note to self: do not go & spend any money there & aid his business…

I pity any customer who went to order food there that afternoon…

2. The bitter end to a relationship: One morning before work I realized that I had no bread: necessitating a quick dash to the boulangerie across the road! As I walked down the stairs I could hear a very loud & angry conversation in one of the corridors. I could hear it on the 5th floor already. Turns out it was all on in the ground floor corridor – the main corridor leading out of the building.

Couloir

A fellow was having an argument with his ex. Why ex, you ask? Because her clothing & belongings were strewn all over the floor in the corridor – the corridor that all of us have to walk through everyday. I did not say anything as I had to step over her stuff & also had to literally walk between them – there was nowhere else to go. Made me feel pretty uncomfortable, but they continued their argument unfazed. As I walked out of the building I was pinned down by the Gardienne who told me not to worry because the Police had been called. Yikes!

When I came back from the bakery, they & the belongings were no longer there. As I ate my croissant upstairs though, I could hear shouting in the street as the argument started up again. Then later as I went to work, I was dreading having to go thru that corridor again, but there was no-one there this time. Outside the building her belongings etc. had been neatly stacked next to the front door.  I wondered about her all day & whether she find somewhere else to go. The belongings were gone at the end of the day…

3. Emotional contagion & crowds: When we are in group or crowds we can be spurred on by others & our positive or negative emotions can be magnified those around us. Sporting events & protest marches are good examples where this can happen – where one ‘in-group’ confronts another – symbolically in sport, but literally in a protest march.

I was walking home from work one night I was struck by the number of people in the street. They were carrying signs & clearly were either going to (I thought), or coming from a protest march. As I walked further along the Boulevard de L’H’hôpital I realized that there was actually no traffic on that street – only loads of police vans with police with riot gear etc. That said, they did not look particularly perturbed  – they were just chilling out near their vans with their colleagues. I walked on to the large roundabout at Place D’Italie – a major roundabout where 7 streets come together. The traffic is always chaotic there at any time of day: cars, buses & scooters taking seemingly random lanes, yet somehow always making it through the intersection safely. The same can be said for pedestrians – I negotiate this roundabout twice a day because I live on one of it’s feeder streets. I am making sure I will not get mowed down as I listen to a podcasts. The image below does not really show the chaos, but hopefully you get an idea of the scale of it.

PlaceDItalie_pano_small

That day, however, the roundabout was completely clear of traffic! All the streets to the roundabout had been blocked off. Even though the protest was over, there were a large number of people still milling around in the roundabout with their signs, flags & other symbols of protest – even deckchairs! When I got to my street I was surprised to see that it was being used as a staging area by the Police. But again, no-one looked particularly perturbed, they were just hanging out chatting with each other.

Where was I during all of this? I asked someone about what was going on & was told that the march was definitely over. So I decided get some sushi at my favorite Japanese restaurant – a stone’s throw [pun intended] from the roundabout. So, here I am tucking into a nice sushi dinner watching Paris’s finest when I notice they start suiting up into their riot gear… uh oh…

…& then they all marched off towards the roundabout with their hard hats, batons & shields!

There was a lot of whistling & yelling for a bit by the detritus of the march. That said, motorists, motor cyclists & bus drivers were not impressed either – looked like they had been stuck waiting to pass through the roundabout for some time – it was peak hour traffic time around 7:30 pm or so. There was also a convoy of buses in our street going nowhere… The Police went over to open the roundabout up to allow traffic to circulate again. And it did.

In the end I had to wonder about how much role-playing/ritual was also going on that day. I say that partly because of conversations I have had with locals. Perhaps I am also cynical – but I did not get an overwhelming sense of really negative energy from the crowd: they had been able to have their protest & make their point. Indeed before long the Police came back to their vans & they did not particularly stressed & perturbed either.

In fact, after they took off their riot gear they hung out & chilled – some on cell phones smoking cigarettes, others vaping. Then they packed up & drove off. And at that point I had finished my sushi & also went home with now normal traffic in our street.

Even though the remnants of the crowd had made a lot of noise, it seemed to me that they did not really want an encounter with police in riot gear. Similarly, the police also had no interest in a confrontation either. Why? Might be because they are literally neighbors. The 13th arr. headquarters of the C.F.G. – the amalgamated set of unions who organized the protest in response to some of Macron’s reforms – is literally across the road from the 13th arr. Hotel de Police [headquarters]!

BlvdLHospital_Pano_small

So what did I learn from these three recent situations ? A couple of things: A. You realize that you are potentially quite vulnerable when you are not totally fluent in the local language when things like this happen. Happily, I have enough command of the language to ask someone what is going on… B. A situation where a person, or people, is/are very upset can turn on a dime – it can do so because of what others do or how they react. In the case of the first situation I was able to defuse it with a non-verbal gesture & in the second case, the best thing to do was to remain silent & go past & let it be. In the third case, the Police as a group had to show emotional intelligence & disperse a group of remaining protesters in a way which would not escalate the situation. This is a very difficult thing to do.

So how do we read the collective emotions of groups & crowds? We don’t really know. I thought a lot about my experience & how I gleaned information from the crowd. Somewhat ironically, this is a new area of research in my lab…

Postscript: We have also had student blockades of a number of universities in France in response to reforms announced by Emmanuel Macron. This also includes an institution of higher learning just near me [site du Tolbiac de l’université Panthéon-Sorbonne], where students had barricaded themselves in a building for 3 weeks & prior to that had been rioting & throwing projectiles at Police. Apparently, the Police stormed the building one morning at 5 am & took control of it by 6 am. Funny thing was, I heard none of this, despite the windows in my apartment being wide open since we are in the middle of a heat wave… Go figure.

There is never a dull moment here. I had forgotten what it is like to live in a big city again…

Postscript 02 MAY 2018: One of yesterday’s May Day marches here in Paris turned very ugly – with hundreds of people being arrested. There was a confrontation with riot police on the Pont Austerlitz & a McDonald’s restaurant was completely destroyed & cars were damaged [within a [cobblestone’s throw from our hospital]. From the reports on the nightly news & the newspaper stories this time it appears that a certain faction of the crowd were out for violence – marring the day for all of those people who wished to march peacefully. [http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2018/05/01/1er-mai-le-defile-parisien-perturbe-par-une-serie-de-violences-200-black-blocs-interpelles_5293042_3224.html]

Where were we during all of this? Fortunately, we were not at work – May 1st is a public holiday in France.

 

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