I’m standing in line at the bus station when I hear the counter attendant complaining about the speed of her debt machine.
“I’m not used to dial-up,” she says. “It’s so slow. Hopefully we’ll get a satellite connection soon. That’s the word anyway. It would definitely make your wait time a little less.”
Now usually this type of simple, innocent interaction wouldn’t be anything worth noting if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve heard her say the exact same thing to me twice before, word for word. It was almost like she was reading a script, the way she smiled as she spoke and finished her statement with a little laugh to let all of us waiting in line know she really wasn’t too upset about things, just hopeful that someday things would be different.
This got me thinking. How many times had I experienced similar types of over-repeated rhetoric and mistook them as genuine, original attempts at conversation? Comfort phrases designed as a means of coping with a mundane job or a strategy for public interaction. In a way, I almost felt let down knowing that our brief, yet pleasant interaction was really nothing more than a well rehearsed, time honoured routine, undoubtedly re-enacted over and over again throughout the station attendant’s entire shift.
Admittedly, I was a bit miffed. The way she smiled at me the first time she delivered her pleasant disapproval only added insult to injury when I discovered she was practically reading off a cue card. But my disappointment quickly turned to the realization that I’ve subjected people to the same thing countless times without even realizing it. Have I been unknowingly called-out for doing the same thing?
The woman’s comments about the speed of her secure-payment system, my assurance that it didn’t matter much to me if I had to wait an extra ten seconds, mixed with our pleasant parting smiles were about as original as other well known, preconceived stranger to stranger interactive phrases like “How about that weather?” or the more precise, “Hot enough for ya?”
This was a disturbing revelation for several reasons. Not only was it a wake up call to the fact that so many pleasant customer service gestures were merely nothing more than standard operating procedures hidden behind pretty smiles or nods of approval, but it was also even more unsettling to think how many daily encounters were based around this foundation of prearranged, run of the mill, carbon copied statements, actions, reactions, and interactions.
When I stopped to ponder this revelation for a few minutes, I started to wonder just how many of these situations we encounter in the run of a day. What’s worse is to think that it would actually be possible to go through an entire day or week or month where the only human interaction we experience is nothing short of meaningless spiel. The ramifications from such an unfortunate existence are only hitting me now as I write this.
“Hey Matt,” someone yells, as they breeze past on a bike while I enjoy my morning coffee outside on the porch. Did they mean it? Was that a legitimate hey? What does hey even mean? Would they have even made the effort to send out such mild greeting if we hadn’t made eye contact seconds before?
“What’s up?” I yell back, knowing full well they have no intention to stop and give me a detailed answer to such a riveting question. If they did, I would have to pretend to be interested in their reply to such an open-ended, all encompassing question. I don’t really want to know the answer because the answer could go in any direction and I was short on social time. I was simply responding to a polite gesture with and a polite gesture. What if they told me their pet died, or they lost their wallet or that they recently contracted some incurable disease? Maybe they just broke up with a partner and were hoping a relaxing bike ride would help clear their mind, their mindless bliss now interrupted rudely by my prying question into where they are in their life.
The worst part for me would be if they did stop to chat in any capacity. I’m not really interested in talking during my little morning ritual of coffee and a smoke on the porch, but would then have had to fake a certain degree of interest in whatever they had to share, all the while hoping they’d continue on and give me back the few minutes from my morning they’ve just hijacked. That’s not to say I feel that way about every hey-maker that comes by.
Back inside our apartment my partner is on her way to the shower.
“How was your sleep,” she asks.
“I slept like a log,” I say, one of several standard relies I have to that question. I could have also answered, “Not bad”, “pretty good I suppose” or the more direct, “fine”.
It quickly became clear to me that there is a striking line between meaningful dialog and customary pleasantries that until now had gone unnoticed, at least by me. I’m not completely naïve. I understand that in order to simply get along and communicate with people, these gestures serve an important purpose. They help me purchase food at the grocery store, buy a beer at the bar and as mentioned at the start of this story, purchase a ticket for the bus.
I realise that in order to go about our daily interactions with others, it would simply be impossible to commit to a serious, meaningful chat with everyone we encounter. I guess what struck me the most was the thought that I have most likely interpreted many of these brief discussions as legitimate, honest conversations by people who were truly interested in the answers to the questions they were asking. Maybe I am more naïve then I thought I was.
The world just got a little colder for me. At the very least, I hope you read this with interest and not just because you read other blog posts I’ve made and therefore felt obligated. If that is the case, you’ve just taken things to a whole new level my friend.