I’m in the elevator of my apartment building, I’m perusing my iPad, when an older gentleman in the elevator says, “Whatcha workin’ on?” I tell him I’m just pulling up an email for my appointment.
He says, “Oh. Well, I’m doing laundry.” I smile and say, “That’s never super fun, but hey, it’s gotta get done, right?” I do a little wink and figurative nudge. Conversation over, right? Nope.
Then as we exit the elevator, passing the laundry room, he proceeds to explain why he’s still walking toward the lobby, instead of stopping in the laundry room. Mind you, I didn’t notice or really even care, but I’m always up for a little conversation with strangers. I enjoy friendly chitchat. I find it neighborly. He says, “I like to use the laundry room in the other part of the building because those washers are more reliable. They don’t break down as often.” I acknowledge and agree with his comment, “Yeah, I use those too sometimes for the same reason.”
I offer up the common and even obligatory “Have a nice day” as I begin to exit the lobby, when he breaks in with, “Well, I’m retired.” I pause my pace, thinking about how my dad thoroughly delights in his retirement, and respond, “How lovely. That sounds like the best day.” He comes back with, “Well, not really. I want to work, but I was told I’m too old and got the boot.” A mopey expression comes across his face.
Oh dear. What do I do with this added tidbit? I just wanted to be nice. I didn’t necessarily mean to prompt a conversation that would hold me emotionally hostage. He’s divulged this disheartening information to me, but I’ve gotta run. You know, to my aforementioned appointment.
This sort of thing happens to me a lot. Patrick says I’m too nice. Whatever that means. I think he’s implying that most people don’t open themselves up to impromptu encounters with strangers in the first place, so the fact that I do, sends out a signal that I care in a deeper way than perhaps I actually do.
I really did feel for him. I thought of all the people I know – young performers in the beginnings of their career pounding the audition pavement, middle-aged men laid off from executive positions who struggle to be counted as relevant as they search for another job, and this guy, representative of our older generation, whose wisdom is often negated and under valued — all people desperate to work, all people being brushed aside.
But I was also frustrated because he didn’t honor the unspoken social nicety of letting a stranger off the hook. I ask you, when is it appropriate to disclose personal information in a casual setting? And when is it simply intrusive? I felt blank, empty, and discouraged knowing I had little ability to respond and encourage this man’s spirit with so little time at my disposal. Was I supposed to drop everything to have a heart to heart with this guy? I gave a meek smile, acknowledged that it would be unsatisfying to be in that position, and hoped he’d find something cheery in his day, but then I was the one left with the dampened spirit. I felt at a loss. Sigh. He was expecting me to give more than I had to give. And somehow I felt it was my fault.
I have a friend who was recently given vegetables from a neighbor’s garden, a person they do not know well. You can probably guess where this is going? After much weighing back and forth, they decided it would be a kind gesture to invite the neighbor over for a quick beer, to be friendly and as a thank you for the bounty. They told the guy how much they enjoyed the vegetables on their shish kabobs and kept the visit short and sweet. For the past week they’ve received random offerings of produce almost every day, accompanied by an uncomfortable assumption that he can now pop over anytime to hang out with his new besties.
Have any of you seen the movie out now called, The Gift? Suffice it to say, it’s pretty scary. My friend’s wife remarked, “What if this turns into THAT? What if we don’t thank him enough? What if he steals our dog?” Now, she was of course joking. And if what I know of her is true, she was thinking what I am thinking when I hear the story. This neighbor guy is clearly in need of fellowship. He’s not dangerous, just putting himself out there. How do you turn away someone like that? When do you have an obligation to take on somebody new? And when is it wrong for someone to force themselves into your life? It’s tricky ‘cause we all know it’s the right thing to extend a hand and include everyone. But sometimes we just don’t want to.
Ick, even as I write this I feel a little like a “mean girl” or something, which is the furthest from the truth. In fact, it would serve me to take on a bit more “mean girl” attitude in my life. I’m usually a real pushover. I don’t plan on changing my ways. I’m not one to close myself off from people, but I do wish that others would pick up on little social clues along the way that would allow me to interact without fear of getting trapped.
If encounters like these happen to you too, and I know they do, you will probably get a kick out of this book a friend recently gave to me, Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon. She writes about these types of scenarios, and her take on them is really funny.
Share with me some of your own tales.
And oh . . . Have a nice day. LOL. But seriously, do have a nice day.