So, I’m standing in line at the grocery store checkout last evening with my wife, Jess, and this couple behind us are looking at our groceries on the conveyer belt and they do something remarkable. They start talking to us.
I’ve started talking to people lately. Like, really talking to people. But really, I mean listening. That’s more the point. I’ve started really listening to people instead of waiting for my turn to speak.
It’s not like I didn’t always listen to people; it’s just that there are lots of people and life is busy. My job is fast and I, like many people, live in a world where time is short and brevity is appreciated, if not expected. Get to the point and move on. Don’t call when an email, i-message or text will do. Can you convey that in an emoticon, without the need for words at all? Even better.
Don’t make your blog posts too long, they tell me, or people won’t read them.
It’s a question of efficiency, and I’m not above it. Sometimes, the fastest way is best. That’s why we tend to run those quick language conventions when we pass someone in the hallway or the office kitchen.
Hey, how goes it? (I don’t really want to know, so please just say ‘good, you?’ so I can do the same and we can both get on with our days.)
Morning. Morning. Cold one out. Yeah, but at least it’s not snowing yet. I’ll take it.
Coffee time. Yup, gotta get that caffeine. I’m not awake till I’m two coffees in. (Fake laugh.)
That’s okay. I get it. You’re busy, I’m busy. We just saw each other yesterday; we don’t need to draw this out.
I can accept these banal exchanges to a point, but there are some more irksome one-liners.
How goes it? Oh, you know – living the dream. (This one always makes me want to suggest that, if you’re really all that down on your current circumstances, for the love of God, go do something about it!)
Is it Friday yet? (No, it isn’t, it’s Tuesday. Do you really want to wish your time away to such an extent that you’d prefer it to be three days in the future? That sounds like an awful waste of life.)
TGIF! (Indeed! But I like Wednesdays and some Mondays, even. You should try it some time.)
Okay, so I am sometimes guilty of such exchanges myself and I get that small talk does have its place and function, but maybe we should all take a bit of a stand against lazy triteness.
Something amazing happens when you start really listening to a person. Give it a try next time small talk threatens. Pause. Be present. Take an interest and actually listen. There’s a moment when the conversation switches. You can see the realization in their eyes. ‘Oh, he really wants to know. He’s interested. He cares.’
I sometimes get lonely. I feel like no one really wants to talk anymore. Faces in phones, ears plugged with white. It’s easy for us to go around in our own little bubbles. It’s the great paradox of our digital generation. The technology has such power to unite across borders and boundaries, but it can have an insidious opposing effect in our day-to-day lives. Our technology is isolating us. It’s preventing us from connecting in person, from being present with other people, from being human.
"The most precious gift you can give someone is your time." -Anon.
Sometimes in my day job at the ad firm, I get to work for some truly important causes and come across some really cool stuff. In my research for a client that provides food and shelter for homeless people, I found this. It was an awareness exercise for homelessness in Seattle, Washington. Based on the idea of ‘giving someone your name’.
"Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound." - Dale Carnegie
That’s another good tip for connecting with people. Use their name. I’m really bad for not retaining people’s names when they introduce themselves to me, so I’m consciously trying to improve this. I think it’s partly because my name is often a bit exotic to people in Atlantic Canada, so my focus is often on preparing myself to explain or spell it out to new acquaintances, causing me to miss their names altogether.
Ten minutes later, I’m across the room avoiding them because I don’t want the embarrassment of having to ask them their name again. Meanwhile, my name is sticky. I spelled it out for them and they repeated it a half dozen times in their head so they wouldn’t get it wrong. They’re looking at me from across the room. They know who I am. But, dammit, what was their name again?!
People’s names are precious to them. There’s science behind it. Using (and, yes, remembering) someone’s name is a great method for creating a connection. When we hear our name, we turn to face the speaker. If they aren’t talking to us, it causes cognitive dissonance and takes our brains a while to work out that they aren’t talking to us. (That generally feels quite disappointing.)
“The only thing in this world you can ever give anybody is time.” –Guy in that video from earlier.
When I lived in a small town, those grocery store conversations happened all the time, but here in the city, not so much. I do it myself. That awkward moment standing in line, I take out my phone. I scan the magazines and tabloids that pre-empt the conveyer belt (the only time I ever display any interest whatsoever in Hollywood gossip). I fiddle with my wallet. Back to my phone.
This time, the couple, having looked at our groceries on the conveyer belt (itself a bit of a social faux pas) start talking to us. They begin by apologizing, ‘We don’t mean to appear nosy, but we were commenting that you guys made good food choices, which is rare these days, especially for younger people.’ They’re older people and they’re talking to us. We’re listening to them and talking back. We explain that Jess is a nutritionist, so we eat pretty well. Turns out the lady is a midwife, the man an expert carpenter specializing in log cabins.
The next guy in line looks up from his phone just long enough to give us all a scowl. (In my head, he’s wearing ear buds, but I may just have added that for dramatic effect.) I get it. He’s busy. Time’s precious. He has an elsewhere to be.
We exchange cards with the talkers, later add them on social media. We made a connection. Who knows, maybe we’ll talk to them again. We certainly felt good for having talked to them that one time. They seemed happy about it, too.
Next time? Look up, make eye contact. Engage. Don’t give off the ‘don’t talk to me’ vibe; say, “hey, fellow human. What’s your name? want to chat?” You have the time, use it. Give it. It’s the most precious gift we have to offer.