Strangers with Pleasant Personalities


It has taken me a very long time to recognize certain things about the way I was raised to view certain social interactions, a view rooted in the "mind your own goddamn business" ethos of the southwest. It was made clear to me, from a very early age and by most of the adults whose examples I witnessed, that when you had to talk to strangers, the conversations should be as neutral and as brief as possible. You shouldn't be flat-out rude, but you also shouldn't make chit-chat with the guy who takes your order at some bakery/bagel/sandwich chain, because he might then feel it appropriate to tell you, with genuine kindness and your best interest at heart, that the sandwich you just ordered has more calories than any other item on the menu. You shouldn't act like you're actually interested in the thoughts and opinions of the person helping you find a book at some bookstore, because then they might stick around and continue to talk to you when you just want to find your book, buy it, and get the hell out of the store. The only exceptions to this rule are if you are trying to spread the gospel; in that case, you should use these mini-moments of niceness as an opportunity to ask the other person what they know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and invite them to church.

Actually maybe that's another reason I used to try to keep conversations with strangers to a minimum: I didn't want to do anything that might invite them to proselytize me. (One more way my religious upbringing screwed up my ability to play well with others.)

But my friend C has no such problem. I have known her for about a year and a half, and hanging out with her has been a revelation, largely because she is so charming, friendly and open: I continue to be astonished at easily she enters into conversations with complete strangers, conversations that, although often very brief, are nonetheless enjoyable to all who participate in and hear them--up to a point.

C used to tend bar. (I so prefer the locution "tend bar" to "be a bartender." It just sounds cooler.) She learned certain things about how to be pleasant enough to people that they wanted to tip her, but not so pleasant that they figured she'd be going home with them at the end of the night. I don't want to make it sound calculated: she has developed a genuine habit of being cheerful, friendly, and polite when she meets people. Which is why the guy at the sandwich shop told her, "That sandwich you just ordered, it's my favorite. I used to eat one almost every day. But then I decided to look it up and see, like, how many calories it has and stuff, and it turns out it's got 1100 calories. It's got more calories than anything else we sell. They're really not good for you."

"I'm so glad you told me that," she said, smiling. "Because even though I don't look it, I'm actually morbidly obese. So it's good to know that sandwich is not helping my problem."

I'm probably not doing the scene justice; it was actually very funny. And she managed not to make the guy feel bad for what was kind of a faux pas. I was really impressed that she made this kid feel so at ease that he would tell her something like that, and then even more impressed that she didn't say anything that embarrassed him, even though he'd said something that was in some small way a reproach to her.

Occasionally--not often, but occasionally--people don't realize when the small, pleasant interaction has come to an end, and that's when I get annoyed, especially because I'm the slightly-more-standoffish friend of the really gregarious girl everyone wants to talk to. My annoyance does not stem from jealousy, however, but from boredom. It's not all that often that these brief conversations with strangers as interesting as the conversation C and I could have on our own, and my old "mind your own goddamn business" training comes back and makes me wish these people would realize that just because C is being really nice to them, it doesn't mean they're interesting.

Among the worst people for this are bartenders and waiters on slow nights. Now, I'm not saying all bartenders or waiters are boring; C and I had a favorite bar and one reason we loved it was that we loved the bartender--she was such a lovely person, and she'd talk to us without hovering. The same went for the wait staff. I loved pretty much everyone at that restaurant. The food was good, but the service was fantastic.

But there were also a couple of bars we had to stop going to because the bartenders were SO BORING and didn't know when to go away, leave us alone and wash glasses.

Saturday night we had an experience at a bar with another of those truly lovely bartenders, a really friendly, good-natured person who is good at his job because he likes it and vice versa. He made good drinks and good conversation. We stayed at the bar much longer than we planned to, and the main reason was the bartender.

Now, in my standard fashion, I have not yet arrived at what is for me the ultimate point I want to make, the reason I started this entry, but my preamble has become extremely long. So I will end here and pick this thread up again in a day (or a week) or two.


Hm... It's interesting. Prior to living in the midwest, I lived on the east coast, and then for a time in Utah. In neither of these places did I experience friendliness in strangers. Then I arrived in the upper Midwest, and found total strangers wanting to strike up surprisingly intimate conversations in strange places like on the bus or in lines at the store.

The only other place I've experienced that is in -- of all places -- rural Finland, where my mom grew up. I think it's a rural thing. In small towns, people tend not to be afraid of each other. It's considered socially acceptable to check out a stranger by engaging them in friendly conversation. In Minneapolis, many folks are still one or two generations from the farm.

I rather enjoy it, though it can make reading a good book on the bus difficult at times.

I'm like your friend, C. In fact, one day, after observing me converse with a total stranger, my sister said to me, "Janet, you could make friends with a rock."

A lot of times, my friendly connecting and bantering works well, but occasionally it totally bombs and then I just look like a crazy broad. I know my ability to strike it up with total strangers often drives Bee to distraction and, seeing such a situation coming, she'll say, "Please don't start up a conversation with that clerk/customer service person/waiter/tourist/whomever." I still do, though.

Hi JGW--I also encountered friendliness when I moved to the midwest 15 years ago, but I wasn't prepared to deal with it, so I didn't know how to respond. And I also encountered the attitude described in "Iowa Stubborn" from "The Music Man":

Oh, there's nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you
Which we may not do at all.
There's an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
We've never been without.

That sums up the Arizona-Mormon way of treating people as well. I don't think friendliness to strangers is necessarily a rural thing at all, because I grew up in a very rural area, an extremely small farming town. Everyone knew everyone else, but that didn't necessarily make them any more willing to talk to others, either people we knew or people we didn't. And that chip-on-the-shoulder thing became really pronounced if you upset the status quo: I remember the stake president's son coming up to me at school so he could inform me that his father had said my mother was going to hell because she had the audacity to run for public office--and most other kids in my class agreeing with him. That was one of the main things people who weren't my friends felt entitled to tell me: how wicked and weird my family was. I know the same was true for plenty of non-Mormons, who were often told that if they didn't join our church, they'd go to hell.

The one class of people welcomed and treated with friendliness were new-comers from out of town or out of state who moved into the your ward (as opposed to someone who just moved across town, or who moved into another ward). In that case, you welcomed them as thoroughly as you could, because they had a ticket into the club.

Janet--I'm glad this is a gift other people have. I would totally like to hang with you while you do it--I still marvel to see it in action, and I still feel I learn and benefit from it.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on December 30, 2007 7:40 PM.

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