Thursday, September 3, 2009

Everyday Strangers

When we were kids, I’m sure we were all taught the same rule...never talk to strangers. Right? So being kids, we found the loop hole and figured out that if we knew someone’s name, then they were no longer a stranger. Think about it, when kids first meet at a playground, at school or at the grocery store while their parents become myopically focused in a search for the brand of tuna they have a coupon for, the first thing they do when they cross the path of another little kid is say “Hi, my name is Becky. What’s your name?”

Some where along the way, we decided that this loop hole is either no longer worth our time or that we can no longer be bothered to put effort into learning the names of people we might seldom, if ever, see again. Why is that? Don’t these random encounters or even the daily consistent glances mean anything? Are these people some how less important than the rest of us?

I can’t take credit for this line of thinking. No, it was my Grandfather, Horace Hartsell, a Dean at the University of Texas Dental School, who set this record straight for me many moons ago. I remember going to the campus with him during the summers thinking “Gadzooks! My Grand-Daddy knows EVERYONE!” Even at the Country Club, I was still amazed as he knew the names of the cart attendants, the wait staff and even the lady that sat at that mysterious desk by the front doors. Sure, I knew Mike the Club Pro but that was because he was my golf coach and the life guards were my swim teachers, but how did HE know them? Why my Grand-Daddy even knew the sacker at the Safeway up the street! They always had long talks, well in my 6 and 7 year-old mind they were long, about their families, sports and the goings on of local politics.

I watched this line of thinking carry through to my Mother as well. When she was a high school principal, she knew the names of every janitor in her building, all of the lunch ladies, the crossing guard and even the school district maintenance folks that migrated on and off our campus as necessity dictated. We’d be there late at night because she had to work on some display case or prepared a presentation for an upcoming teacher in-service and I’d watch as she talked and sang-along with janitors who played radios in the background while they danced and sang through the halls of my high school carrying out their nightly routines. I noticed the little snacks that the lunch lady would leave on my Mom’s desk most afternoons with a note on it about “thought you might need a little pick-me up”.

Now I’m a people watcher by nature; I love people! I love everything about them. I love to eat by myself in a restaurant and easy-drop on the conversations at tables around me; not because I have any vested interest in what they are discussing, but I like hearing how people communicate with others when they think no one else is listening. I love watching the way a parent plays and giggles with their child in a local park. I appreciate the way a person walks down the street humming to themselves or waits patiently at a stop light, waiting for their opportunity to cross the street.

I like to write stories in my head as I watch these moments. Where do I think that person is going? What is their end goal once they get there? I guess this is my own way of making sure they aren’t strangers to me, incase I get the chance to say hello to them. But why do we all wait for that moment to come to us? Why is it that the norm has become for us to wait to be approached instead of reaching across the aisle and just saying “hello”? Are we really all that busy? Is what we’re doing that much more important than what they are doing?

It got me thinking the other morning as I got out of my car and I watched the BELO campus janitor cleaning up debris over by the news trucks, as she does every morning around 7:15 a.m. (she’s incredibly consistent with her schedule – I know this because again, I’m a people watcher). Every morning I see her, every morning I say quick hello as I rush by, but it dawned on me...I don’t know her name! I’ve never said more than “good morning” to her. Why not? The entrance to my building is what...500 feet away? Is stopping to talk with her and not rushing inside to opening that email for five more minutes really going to cause some kind of catastrophic upheaval in the Underworld? At what point did I forget the lessons I watched my Mother and Grandfather not only teach, but live?

At first, as I typically do, I just let the thoughts and questions bounce around in my head for a few hours as I got into my day. Then, as my boss and I were walking over to a meeting at the Dallas Morning News, we passed a wall of photos. This wall had over 50 photos of recognized employees. I paused for a moment to check it out. I had seen that person..and that one...OH and I rode in the elevator with that one the other day. And then it hit me, and it hit me hard, I didn’t know any of their names. I hadn’t bothered to strike up a conversation or say more than a passing, robotic “hello” with any of them.

I’m a firm believer in practicing what you preach. I also believe that the Universe sends you messages from time to time to help get you back on track; now whether or not you listen is up to you. Suffice it to say, I listened. I have been completely humbled by the fact that I let a beautifully subtle lesson shown to me throughout my childhood by both my Mother and Grandfather fall to the wayside in utter waste.

So why don’t we all take a gander at the activities surrounding our every day lives. Whose paths do you cross? Do you know the name of your bus driver or the security attendant at our commuter train station? What about that bagger at your grocery store who always carries out your bags? When you’re at a restaurant, why not attempt the name on the badge instead of referring to them as “Miss”? And on that note, when they do ask you how you are, why not return the gesture and inquire as to how they are doing? You’re going to be spending the next 30 to 60 minutes with them anyway…why not be the one to offer the ice breaker; be the person to break-up the monotony of the standard server/guest routine?

Show your kids that taking time to say a real “hello” to people in your every day life is still okay...there’s no need to fear everyone; not everyone is a red light person. Drop a thank you card in your kid’s backpack for her teacher acknowledging their extra efforts. Ask about your favorite checker when you notice she hasn’t been there in a couple of days. Stop and tell the manager at that restaurant about the great service you received, don’t just call out the bad stuff.

If we all make an extra effort to acknowledge those around us and all they do, it’ll show the Universe that we really get that we’re “all in this together” and that we’re all important. If we take a moment to slow down and share a moment with those around us, we will be adding more value to these seemly random relationships. We’ll also be adding a little more back into the value of people in general.

And by the way, that lovely lady I see each morning is...why, her name is Cornelia.

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