MPF Observations – Communication in the Modern Age – Strangers or Not ?

Strangers,Mission Positive Films,Heather M Spencer, MPF - Observation Series,MPF

Strangers or Not ?

Don & I decided to get a quick bite to eat after a concert a while back, and ended up at a Honolulu landmark called Liliha Bakery ( the original one ).  It’s actually a bakery and old fashioned diner that’s been around since 1950, equipped only with a counter, and about 15 or 16 bar stools. It’s generally hopping in the late night hours so getting a stool can turn into a pretty good wait, but it’s worth it, if just for the experience. The servers and short order cooks work in perfect unison, and you have a front row seat, as the only thing between you and them, is the 2′ counter in front of you.  As we were watching our meals cooking on the grill, a waitress set a plate down next to Don that definitely caught his attention. Within a matter of seconds, he was in a conversation with the recipient of that meal, and they continued to chat throughout our time there. For my part, I was conversing with the lovely lady sitting next to me about her menu recommendations for the next time we visited. It was a wonderful experience, chatting with folks we didn’t know, and probably wouldn’t see again, but with no expectations or preconceived notions, we were just relating to each other as people.

A few weeks later, we were at a local pizza place picking up a ” to go ” order, on what happened to be the last game of this year’s world series. While we were waiting, we wandered into the bar area that had the game playing on a large screen TV, and were immediately caught up in the excitement of the crowd. You’d have thought we were all the best of friends.

Those two incidents got me thinking about how we relate to strangers. What makes it OK for us to let down our walls, and share a conversation, or an experience with someone we’d normally pass on a street without a glance ? In our day to day lives, we surround ourselves with an invisible ” people ” shield that allows us to feel comfortable around strangers as long as they don’t penetrate that shield. Interestingly, the size of our comfort area changes with the situation. When there are very few people around, our area can be quite large, but when we’re in a crowd, we draw it in to accommodate the closer environment.  Case in point.

We were visiting New York City and decided it would be great fun to go to a Yankees game. Being on a tight budget, we opted to take the subway to the game, and fortunately boarded it well away from the stadium. That was apparently the transportation of choice for most of the fans, so our car was completely full well before we reached our destination. By full, I mean sardine can full. As nearly every square inch of my body was pressed against another person, the thought crossed my mind that if someone wanted to get fresh, there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. Then I realized that if someone actually had that intention, they wouldn’t have any more luck getting it done as I would stopping it. When we hit the last station before the promised land and the ability of taking a full breath, the doors opened to the hopeful people that were waiting to board. You could here the collective sigh when they quickly realized they wouldn’t be getting on that train, and then something happened I would have never thought possible. A teenage boy had decided that he was going to get on no matter what. He backed up about 20 feet and took off toward the train like he’d been shot out of a cannon. When he was a few feet away from the opening, he went airborne. Somehow, someway, the ripple effect of his impact made just enough room for him to fit, but how those doors ever closed, I’ll never know.  When we finally shimmied off the train and had decompressed from our flattened state, I realized that I had never been that intimate with someone, and not at least known their name.

So how is it that we can freely chat with someone at a diner, yet not say a word to the person that’s pressed against our backside ? How many times have you taken a long flight, and shared few, if any, words with the person that’s crammed into the seat beside you ? How can we cross paths with someone on a sidewalk without acknowledging they exist, but can cheer side by side with an entire group of total strangers ?

First, let’s take out the social butterflies that will talk to anybody, anytime, anywhere, AKA John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. ( sorry, as it’s Thanksgiving I had to throw that in ), and the ultra shy. For the rest of us, the line between being open to making new connections, or moving on without contact, seems very blurry. Part of it is the unstable nature of today’s world; we are warned continually about keeping our guard up against those that would take unfair advantage of us. We also carry a basic fear of rejection that makes us cautious about exposing ourselves to possible hurt, similar to the asking someone for a date trauma. I think though, the desire to connect is part of our psyche, but to allow that to happen, we need the catalyst provided by a shared experience. When we pass someone on a street, or ride next to them on a public bus, train, or plane, we have no knowledge whatsoever about who they are, or what they’re about, so there’s no easy place to start. If however, we’re on a tour bus, or a junket to Vegas, we have a common thread, so it’s much easier to begin that first conversation. It’s also interesting that the ease of connecting is directly related to the level of emotion generated by the shared experience. Meaning that if that tour bus picks you up and drops you off without anything unusual happening, your chances of really bonding with someone new, are limited. However, if that same tour bus breaks down in the middle of the nowhere, you’re probably going to get to know your fellow travelers pretty well, and if someone on that bus goes into labor while in the middle of nowhere, you’ll probably end up with a lifetime friend or two.

Anyway, something to think about on your next long flight, that is when you’re not on your phone or tablet, but hey, that’s a whole different post.

Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and if you haven’t already seen it, check out Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, it’s a fun Turkey-day flick.

Heather M Spencer

Mission Positive Films

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