Thursday, March 20, 2014

Say Hello to Strangers

I suppose, dear reader, you have noticed how twilight can be a bittersweet time. At twilight, on Sunday, I skimmed some pages of a feature on loneliness in this month’s Oprah magazine. I found that social connections are scientifically proven to add to various measures of health, and increase our longevity… Oprah’s readers were advised to “Speak Up,” and then advised to have a national “Say Hello to strangers” day for Oprah readers. The next morning, on a fine Saint Patrick’s day, in a Calgary Metro column, Jeremy Klaszus wrote of the “proven health benefits” of saying hello not only to strangers and friends but to those in-between in the “blurry zone” such as the barista whose name you don’t know, and the jogger you nod hello to every day.

Meanwhile, back in the Sunday twilight, I reflected on the connections that day.

This Sunday, I confess, was an “off day” for me. I had only done a little writing craft in the morning—normally I do a lot over morning coffee, so the rest of my day can be guilt free. And I had only done a little house cleaning—much remains. Finally, in the late afternoon I’d driven to Bridgeland and walked about, but not nearly as much as I would usually walk.

As I walked I was conscious that—call me a Puritan—I usually try to make my days more productive. Below a long hillside, on the big rectangular field where the city hospital used to be, were young men and women in street clothes with superbly padded swords, arrows and spears. They had identical round shields. Interesting. I could tell they weren’t part of the Society for Creative Anachronism, but I didn’t bother asking two bystanders what was going on; I didn’t sit on a bench to smell the grass and see what would unfold. Usually I’m not so apathetic: As I said, it was an off day.

Walking on the sidewalk this Sunday I always stepped aside, well in advance, from any approaching groups of happy dogs and their humans—without making eye contact: Which is unusual for me, here in my small-town city. At last I looped back around to a Starbucks Coffee shop, there to plunk down my pack at one of about a dozen little round tables. A bland middle-aged man in a bland grey T-shirt glanced up at me twice as I came in: I noticed him having the unmistakable body language I knew from my student days, saying, “Let’s connect, stranger, and talk, to chit chat or delve into the meaning of life.” But my sociable student days were behind me, and I was really having an off day… As for the rest of the folks in that community coffee shop in the Bridgeland community, they weren’t communal at all.

In fact, I was so struck by how non-communal the place was that later, after the man had left and been replaced, I recorded some statistics in my journal:

-The only folks conversing were a group of four young dressed-in-black police constables with protective vests.
-As for the other tables, there were no groups and no pairs, only nine solitary occupants, including me.
-Only two non-Puritans were merely reading for pleasure: One was a middle-aged lady with a streak of brightly dyed hair, reading a harlequin romance; and one was me, reading a “manga,” a translated Japanese comic book.
-Three or four were intently focused on using their laptops.
-Three or four were intently making notes as they read.
-No one had a “social prop” such as a newspaper with short articles, or notebook to sporadically write in (except me, briefly) where one would be clearly seen as not minding interruptions.
-Most strikingly, everyone but me had a stiff intent-on-what-they’re doing, oblivious to their surroundings, don’t-bother-me body language. Not communal, not at all.

As for me, while occasionally making eye contact with a young police constable, I was having a good time glancing around and grinning to read my manga: volume four of Haganai, I don’t have many friends. That’s the series where the girl justifies being caught talking to her imaginary friend: “If you can have an air guitar then I can have an air friend.”

The behaviors I noticed on Sunday were all the more striking because it was a day where you would think we had something in common lifting everyone’s spirits: There was water trickling in the gutters, there was more bare ground than white—summer was rushing in! At last! …Around these parts we don’t have spring.

Not everyone, I guess, knows how to say hello to strangers. I have a pretty friend, Christina. How pretty? Let’s just say I take too many photos of her. She has an equally pretty friend, “Hermione.” Poor Hermione can walk for blocks without anyone speaking to her. Unlike Christina. My friend connects with strangers because, she explained once, she has a light body language and light roaming eyes. “I got that from you” she said. How nice. I like to make her smile when we’re together by having fun talking to strangers. It’s easy for we two, but not for Hermione, walking heavily with her intent eyes focused straight ahead. Such a pity. I suppose “saying hello” means having an inner state of being open to the world. Role modeling would work: I guess Christina just relaxed and channeled her “inner Sean.”

Back when I was a young man I lived in a wonderful shared house where no one thought I was shy—but I was, sometimes, when away from home. Back then I read a book by Professor Phillip Zimbardo. I remember his description of one of his students, in the cafeteria, nervously cramming a cupcake into her mouth as someone walked by. After the professor’s students asked him for help he wrote the first ever book on shyness. Zimbardo declared shyness “is not dispositional but situational.” In other words, we can be non-shy, even too talkative, in a situation with people we know such as our immediate family… My conclusion: It would not be enough for Hermione, or the folks in the Sunday coffee shop, to know how to say hello—They would also, on that day, have to be willing.

I wish for all my readers to have days when you don’t walk along with tired eyes, or a frown. I believe we all have something to offer, such as small talk; we all can give a smile to lift up a stranger.

And may you and I forgive ourselves our off days.

Sean Crawford
On Saint Patrick’s Day,
Calgary (Cowtown) Alberta
~On Friday Judy and I went to explore an art gallery in Inglewood. It’s four floors above Gravity coffee shop, in a very affluent office tower with glass stairs. We made our way up, floor by floor, past art at each level. Neat! Of course by the time we reached the gallery we weren’t tired old baby boomers—if we ever were—we were alive, excited and approachable. You enter the gallery through an airlock: a revolving door. As we hung up our coats a stranger, a young artist dressed all in black, burst out that she liked how my T-shirt was so nice for others to enjoy, saying she should wear ditch her black for something friendly too. Wow—Trust an artist to see, and to speak her truth. I advised her of an artsy French T-shirt I’d seen for sale down the street in a new comic book store: How nice to make a connection! (I later learned she had a generation Y name, Kaylin)

My shirt, by the way, had a detailed Jurassic scene complete with a foreground brontosaurus arcing his long neck up, up against pretty clouds.

~Back in the days when people cared about status, Dale Carnegie said words to this effect: A woman’s expression is more appealing than the fur coat on her back.

~Joss Whedon, best known for his summer block-buster The Avengers, got his start writing about a lonely high school vampire slayer in Sunnydale, and then about a lonely refuses-to-drink-blood vampire in Los Angeles. Joss said, “Loneliness leads to nothing good, only detachment.” Well. If in my grim old age I detach, then I will no longer give-a-care about making small talk to cheer up strangers: Yuck! … I prefer the innocence of youth, expecting I will like others, and be liked.

~Related essays are Brights in a Grey Life, archived December 2013, and Learning to be Nice, archived May 2013. 

~I'm getting a lot of hits on this one, but not for the two pieces mentioned above. Well then, specifically for how to be "saying hello" as a tourist talking to strangers, see my essay of July 2017
It's a good one, even if nobody asked for a part two.

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