I have just arrived home from a seemingly endless parade of trips (for work, for weddings, for fun, definitely not for relaxation). Only one of the trips was by airplane, but it seemed to try and make up for that fact by sticking me in flight delay purgatory both coming and going. Sitting on the tarmac in a tin can during a massive thunderstorm while the pilot explains the exact amount of time that must elapse between lightning strikes before he’ll be allowed to attempt takeoff (10 minutes is the magic, totally not arbitrary number apparently), I had plenty of time to reflect on the curiosities of my existence. Namely, why do people keep talking to me?
I don’t mean my friends or family or co-workers or vague acquaintances. I mean, I don’t really know why they talk to me either, but at least there is some actual relationship to justify our interactions. I’m talking about complete strangers in public places. For example: in the airport, at the weird restaurant thing where every seat has a tablet and card reader so you can order your Jack & Coke and limp salad in a few confusing keystrokes, then pay for it and wait without actually having to make eye contact with another living soul during the entire transaction. Why there, in a place designed to be antisocial and made for the most disgruntled of personages (airline passengers already 2 hours past their designated departure time), would anyone try to have an impromptu chat?
Sure, OK, “boredom” is the likely answer. And that’s fine. I don’t try to strike up conversations with strangers to kill time, but I can see why other more “social” people might. In this case, it was an upper middle-aged woman from Miami, who decided to share a photo she saw on Facebook with my husband and me, seated across from her. In the pic was a person riding a bicycle down the middle of a 6-lane highway, and we all commiserated about how insane that guy must be, and in fact anyone who voluntarily rides a bike in an urban landscape. She told us about how terrible traffic is in Miami, and how her son bought her a bicycle but she won’t ride it even in her suburb, and instead loads it into her car and drives it out into nature instead. We mentioned that we recently moved to Vermont, where riding a bike seemed like it might be a pleasant pastime, from New York City, where riding a bike seemed like a longterm suicide mission.
The chat went on for awhile, and got pretty personal. She told us about how she teaches government and civics to her high school students, and very seriously tries to prepare them for today’s political climate. She gave us advice on what to look for in school systems when we decide to start a family, and told us about her own regrets and mistakes she’d made as a mother. At this point another gentleman, who had sidled up to wait for a take-out order (wisely opting not to sit at the iPad benches), jumped into our conversation with his own tales of parental regret. Apparently he spoiled his now-teenaged sons, with all the sports and toys and cars they could want, and is now attempting to course-correct their upbringing by cutting off the free flow of money and objects they have grown so accustomed to. My husband and I shared stories of our own childhoods: how his parents let him know that their money was not, in fact, his money and if he wanted something he’d need to buy it himself, or the way my parents told me early on that college is expensive and if I wanted to go to a good one I better work hard for a scholarship because they wouldn’t be able to afford it on their own. We probably passed about 45 minutes this way, much to the annoyance of those seated around us trying to enjoy a sub-par meal in silence, until finally the gentleman and the woman both got up to head to their respective gates.
Once they were out of earshot my husband turned to me, his eyes wide. “What is it with you and the random conversations?” he said. “This never happens to me, unless I’m with you.”
And he was right. On a crowded subway platform in NYC I’d be the person to get stopped by every lost tourist looking for directions. People want to talk to me about what I’m reading, even if I’m just reading comic books on my phone, or ask me where I got my sandals because their daughter would love them. Even discounting the times the random encounter is actually somebody hitting on me, I’m still left with an awful lot of interactions with friendly strangers.
Do I look friendlier than normal? Maybe. I have come to realize that I use my smile as a defense mechanism, as my default reaction to almost every situation. A safety precaution to keep from offending or upsetting anyone who might, in turn, make things ugly. Guys don’t have to tell me to smile, because I do it anyway. It’s sort of messed up. It made me a halfway decent publicist for a time, but just because I can interact with strangers doesn’t mean I always enjoy it, or even want to. Basically: it’s not that I am a nice person, it’s that I look like a nice person, and that gets me through the world with ease. My husband, on the other hand, wears a permanent scowl as his resting face. With a thick beard hiding most of his face anyway, the impression of grumpiness is all that really manages to come through. And likewise, he isn’t a bad person, he just doesn’t want to deal with people and scowling keeps them away. It’s how he chooses to pass through the world with ease. So it’s no wonder that he doesn’t often get approached by strangers, unless he’s with me.
So when I see people warming to him when he’s with me, I wonder if it’s my smiling face that makes him seem less threatening or if it’s some unacknowledged bias at work. Or maybe I’m not being fair. Maybe they just pick up on the fact that he was raised in New Jersey, and my friendly backwoods mountain ways mitigate that.
On the plus side, the tides seem to be turning and it’s all thanks to that gorgeous beard of his. The longer it gets, the more people stop him to compliment it. Old men telling him it reminds them of their own bygone beards. Hipster chicks who are into the hirsute look. Soon he’ll be the center of attention and I’ll be the one sucked into the random interactions by proximity. Beards are the new blank smiles, smashing social boundaries and bringing people together for awkward interactions in public places.