Worldwide smoking bans in public places have made the 21st century an increasingly difficult and marginalised time to be a smoker. And for the non-smokers around, me included, the ruling makes life a hell of a lot easier. Opening the doors to your local boozer no longer means having to saunter through the sort of smoke clouds you had only seen on a Stars In Your Eyes stage entrance. Nowadays, whether you’re at work, at a restaurant, or out clubbing, you have to brave the elements if you want your nicotine fix. And if you’re in England, 99.9% of the time the weather is a drab and dreary concoction of cloud and drizzle, adding a touch of melancholy to the already depressing sight of people huddled together smoking outdoors.
However, something happened to me this year which gave me a totally different perspective on the matter. And in order to look back on it, we have to rewind to March, when I was solo backpacking the East Coast of Australia.
There I was. My cheek squashed against the Greyhound bus window. The dry, exhausted Australian landscape providing the backdrop. An overweight man in his late 40s was sat next to me, his snores reaching the decibel levels of a pneumatic drill. I was travelling by myself and, if I’m being honest, I desperately wanted some friends. Some company. Anything.
We approached a service station somewhere in between Sydney and Byron Bay. The driver pulled over and got on the mic,
“Guys, just a quick toilet break for those who need it. Make sure you’re all back on the bus in ten minutes time”.
Within seconds of the announcement, half of the bus had made their way to the exit.
“Crikey, I didn’t realise I was in the presence of people with such weak bladders”, I thought. I had to double check that I hadn’t booked myself onto a Saga tour of the Australian East Coast instead. Upon further inspection it was apparent that this wasn’t the case. These people rushing to the front of the bus weren’t about to soil themselves. Nor were they a bunch of septuagenarians either. These people were smokers.
For the next ten minutes I stayed put. My cheek still pressed against the window. The chap next to me was now breathing so heavily, he could only be nearing the end of some sort of rampant sex dream. Yet this time round, the view from my window was a group of twenty-something travellers, puffing on cigarettes and conversing like long lost friends. Forming friendships and making plans for that night, I presumed, whilst gradually realising just how much each other had in common, in between each inhalation and exhalation.
I don’t like cigarettes, I’m asthmatic, and therefore not the best at passive smoking. So for me to hop off the bus, wade through the cloud of tobacco smoke and join in with the conversation was completely out of the question. But at that moment in time, I wanted to be out there with them. I wanted the sociability of a smoker, and it posed me the question.
Do smokers have a social advantage?
One thing that smokers have is the ability to spark up conversation with complete strangers, and it being entirely socially acceptable. The words, “got a light?” create the platform and lay the foundations for conversation. You smoke the cigarettes together, and an immediate bond is formed.
When I’m walking my dogs, I experience something similar. Approaching and talking to a stranger in the park would ordinarily seem a little weird. Yet when I’m armed with my Border Terrier and my Cockapoo, and the stranger in question also has a dog in tow, talking isn’t a problem. Smoking is exactly the same. And since we’re living in a time where we’re increasingly turning to our smart phones and laptops to converse with one another, smokers have the benefit of having a shared activity that allows them to talk to strangers in person.
Another advantage is that smoking tends to be conducted in groups. I mean, I wouldn’t be writing this piece now if only one person had stepped off the coach in Australia, dejectedly lighting a cigarette and puffing away on their lonesome for those remaining ten minutes. It was the gathering of several people that had me envious for a slice of their social interaction.
Perhaps the Government’s efforts to curb smoking in public places has brought smokers closer together. Stripping them of the chance to both smoke and interact with non-smokers at the same time, smokers can now only converse with one another. I feel this especially at work. I’ve been sat there, the sound of a pin drop enough to make me jump out of my skin for the lack of atmosphere, whilst the people with their cigarettes would be outside, chatting, venting and gossiping with one another. There’s also that painful period of solitariness, filled with pretend texting and awkward stretching, when your friends decide to leave the bar or nightclub to go outside for a smoke. They are mingling with a party of people, and I’m inside on my own, having to shuffle incompetently to the latest David Guetta tune.
In a related article from the Montreal Gazette, focussing on the social side of smoking, one of the subjects, when questioned as to whether the efforts to eliminate smoking had an effect on smokers, responded,
“There’s a group spirit…There are things you would say to another smoker that you would never say to anyone else”. This hints that the sense of disconnection from society felt as a result of the smoking ban has in someways strengthened the connection between smokers. This is reminiscent of the time my primary school banned Pokémon cards after the head teacher believed them a distraction from work. All that happened was that the dedicated Pokémon card collectors amongst us took to covert strategies in order to build up our Pokémon card empire.
According to a 25 year study into smoking carried out by Jim Sherman, a Professor of Social Psychology at Indiana University, smokers are more sociable than non-smokers, and this can be seen as early as school.
“They generally date earlier, and they’re often popular. The cool kids in school were smokers, and they were dating…They tend to be more socially precocious, extroverted and risk taking than non-smokers”. Whether or not this is true is up for debate. But as a non-smoker throughout school, spending most of my time reading TinTin and ‘fiddling’ with my Playstation controller, I certainly didn’t ooze with social prowess.
The negatives of smoking are so well established, it would have been pointless to write a blog entry on the reasons why smoking cigarettes is bad for you. I thought it would be interesting to explore an antithetical viewpoint, following that feeling of envy I had on the Greyhound bus. I tell myself all the time that smoking is bad for you, but I still can’t shake off the disadvantages I feel from being a non-smoker. Having something so conversable as a cigarette gives smokers a social leg up.
I must add though, it is only when I’m on my own that I feel envy for smokers. When I was backpacking, I was alone, far from home, and thus had a greater desire and need to belong and be part of a group. In the staff room at work, or the nightclub, when my peers leave me to smoke, it’s the vulnerability and loneliness that prompts the desire for communication.
Smokers probably think the world is against them, and to an extent it probably is, and rightly so, but this post shows that there are social advantages to smoking, coming from the perspective of a non-smoker.
Hopefully in years to come, smoking levels will decrease, and there will be someone like me on a Greyhound bus – maybe one of the latest ‘hover’ buses – on the East Coast of Australia.
The driver will then pull over and get on the mic,
“Guys, just a quick talking break for those who might be feeling lonely, or for those who just want to chat. Go out there and make some friends. See you in ten minutes time”.