Social Experiment: Being Handcuffed to a Friend in Downtown Toronto

In downtown Toronto, we see it all. It’s like the Florida of Canada, where strange and cool things simultaneously occur. In fact, people either blend in by walking with the crowds or stand out by belching into a microphone near Dundas Square. In fact, not too long ago, a quirky man dressed in a yellow duck suit used to perform by hitting plastic bins (@tkentertainer). As most native Torontonians know, downtown is a place where the line between compliance and taboo blurs.

I went out to the Stag Shop, bought a pair of handcuffs and found my friend Kevin Yu, who was oddly willing to be cuffed to me for two hours. Originally what I’d thought would be a silly social experiment on strangers, would actually teach me a lot more about myself.

Our first stop was David’s Tea. Kevin wanted to buy some iced tea, and when he pointed the tea out to the cashier with his right hand, I had to comply by holding up my left. We had to move as one unit. The cashier smiled at our cuffed wrists with some curiosity, but took his order as normally as she could. I knew from the look in her eyes that as soon as we would exit the store, her and her co-workers would giggle. We exited promptly, somewhat embarrassed though also laughing ourselves.

We kept walking towards the Eaton Center. It was dark outside, so I believe most people didn’t notice that our hands were cuffed. It just looked like we were holding hands. Despite how constricting it was, the cuffs gave me a sense of intimacy, as if we were connected without words. The flimsy but stubborn made in China toy temporarily secured our space in the world. 

Inside Eaton Center, some people gave us weird looks and did double-takes, but most didn’t notice. Some tried to walk through us but realized they couldn’t. 

I bought a scented oil from Saje. The employee seemed very delighted upon seeing us. I think it made his day. Afterwards, we went to HMart for groceries, where a police officer who was likely on some sort of surveillance duty glared at us, but said nothing. We continued our walk onwards into the streets under the fluorescent city lights.

“You’re being too aggressive,” Kevin said to me while we walked. I apologized quickly. But then I asked for clarification. “It’s because you’re pulling too hard,” he said and showed me his reddened wrists. 

I laughed it off and said, “Oops,” but continued walking. I had inflicted strain on him from my movement. I didn’t notice, but maybe I did tug a bit while walking. It was a bit of a surprise to me, since that was how I normally walk. I never thought of my walking as aggressive, but maybe it’s my subconscious mental energy translating into my physical presence.

From that moment, I kind of understood the whole mind-body-spirit trope. Maybe I tugged while walking because I wasn’t considering the movement of his arm. I only focused on my own, not his. 

It can be said without words too. I thought about all the people I might’ve hurt, not on purpose but through a lack of consideration. The accidental times where I’ve forgotten birthdays, or didn’t congratulate someone for an effort, or talked more than listened, like how I was pulling, as opposed to walking side-by-side with Kevin. 

Perhaps this comparison may be a stretch, but it’s like a relationship’s dynamic also. Technically, being ‘cuffed’ to someone, whether physically or romantically, you have to be aware of how you move because every move, word, or action you do will not only have an effect on you, but also on another.

“The experience felt very awkward at first,” Kevin wrote to me later on. “But it turned out it wasn't as embarrassing as I thought it would be the more I got used to walking as a pair. The real awkwardness came from when you realize how little control you have over where others (other than the person you are handcuffed to) want to go.”

In order for friendships, relationships, and walking downtown handcuffed to work, both parties must contribute equal efforts to advance together without hurting the other. If pain occurs, learn from it. Keep going. One step at a time.