During the long seeming decades of living life behind a mask (and, sigh, now we’re back there again, indoors anyway), one of the things I missed most were the little random chats people have in passing. The exchange of smiles. At a time when we most needed the comfort of contact with our fellow human beings, we had to make do with the occasional nod.

Talking to people bridges the gap created by absorption in our personal cares/woes/busy-ness, creates warm fuzzy feelings that foster a desperately-needed civility, reminds us we are part of something larger than ourselves, a community. We need to talk.

What happens when we stop talking was painfully illustrated recently when a California teacher wound up in the hospital with head and face lacerations after an enraged parent attacked him. The reason for the beating? The parent had just discovered the school, following a new state mandate, was making the children wear masks in the classroom.

Whatever happened to “use your words”? Even the most heated discussion would have been better. I guess it’s just fortunate the parent didn’t pull out a gun.

Talking Down Your Fears

In my notes for this post, I jotted down a line I found on the Internet: We text constantly, but we talk less. While there may be myriad reasons for this—e.g., wishing to convey a quick, brief message without becoming ensnared in a long, chatty conversation—a 2020 report in the Harvard Business Review suggests deeper issues may underlie our preference for texting over talking. In a string of experiments, people were given the choice to get in touch with an old friend by either phone call or email. Most chose email, despite the fact that they expected to feel more connected to their friend if they actually spoke to them. So why not pick up the phone? Because they also imagined—and feared—they would feel more awkward. Typing seemed the “safer” route. 

Afraid to talk to our friends??? Worried about letting others glimpse the “real” us? Is this the fallout from a decade-plus of Facebook relationships where we paint a perfect, enviable picture of our life to the world, all the warts (and human need/frailty) removed?

Well, the good news is, as so often happens, our inflated fears are all out of proportion to reality.  When people were randomly assigned to contact an old friend by email or phone, those who made phone calls reported feeling more connected than the e-mailers—as they’d anticipated—but also far less awkward than they had feared beforehand. This finding held up even when people were asked to talk to a stranger to discuss a given issue. “This is consistent,” the research notes, “with other findings suggesting that a person’s voice is really the signal that creates understanding and connection.”    

Cat Litter Chat

Talking to other people, especially in passing, doesn’t have to be brilliant or witty or deep. One of the easiest ways to connect is through the simple commonalities of life.

Recently, on my daily stroll, I passed a house where two women were carrying their shopping from the car. One had a gigantic box I recognized. Cat litter. For those of you not blessed with cats, I will reveal that pre-COVID, cat litter came in 20 lb. bags. Not featherweight, but doable. Since the pandemic, however, it is only available in my local supermarket in THIRTY POUND boxes. While bags have some friendly “give”, boxes are blocky. They have hard corners—ouch! To top it off, this woman—a tad over 5” tall—was carrying this boulder of a box up a steep incline.

In solidarity, I called out, “I can’t believe how heavy they’re making those boxes of cat litter now.”

“Don’t I know it,” the woman called back. “It’s a killer. My arms are numb.”

That was it. They entered their house and I went on my way, but my spirits were lifted. I felt good, a part of my larger neighborhood, my town, humanity. I hope I left them feeling the same.    

The Shortest Distance Between Two People

My first mask-free walk occurred about three weeks after my second dose of Moderna. It was harder than I thought to give up that mask—I hated that I hadn’t talked to anyone on the street in over a year, hated that I couldn’t beam a smile in anyone’s direction, but I also associated the mask with safety, with staying alive. After some inner tussle, I braved the streets barefaced one sunny May morning.

Unsplash: Luis Villafranca

Five or six blocks along, I passed a house where half a dozen people were chatting, sprawled across two sofas, an armchair and a rocker on the lawn. This seating was grouped around a large dining table and separated by end tables of various sizes and woods. A hand-lettered piece of cardboard—TAG SALE—was propped against a garbage can.

I loved it. It was just such a funny, fantastical scene, I couldn’t pass it by unremarked.

Now, humor is always a bit of a risk—it can fall flat, can be met with puzzled looks—but I’ve got a magnet on my fridge that says Laughter is the shortest distance between two people, and I tend to chance it, so I called out, “You’ve done it! You’re all set up for outdoor living.”

They all laughed, and I laughed. We chatted for a few minutes—about how good it felt to see people’s faces again, how great it was that we’d made it to summer. I walked on clouds all the way home.

Peace, Love & Understanding: It’s Just a Few Words Away

As noted up top, we need to talk to people because not talking is the quickest route to misunderstandings, anger, and unhappiness. When you’re feeling slighted or wronged, though, it can be hard to remember. I was reminded of this recently when Ed and I had dinner at a local Mexican bistro. The set-up here was you ordered your food/drinks at the counter/bar, then selected a table and a server would bring your meal.

Unsplash: Nathan Dumlao

As I waited in line, I noticed there was no listing for the beers available at the bar, so I asked the woman who took my order if I could see a list of their brews. She was very short with me: “We don’t have a list.” Okay, could she maybe tell me what was available on tap/in bottles? “I don’t know,” she said and tallied up my dinner order. “If you’ve got anything like Corona or an IPA, I’ll take one.” She shrugged and gave me my food total.

By the time I was seated at our table, my happy spirits at a night out had plummeted into the annoyed zone. “What kind of restaurant counterperson has no idea what beer is available?” I asked Ed. “Why was she so hostile? I wasn’t rude.”

“I heard her tell the man in front of me that the power was out for a couple of hours,” Ed said, “but orders for pick-up kept pouring in online, and there was no way to prepare them. Then everyone showed up, expecting their food.”

Okay. Reset. The woman has just spent two hours in the no-fun zone, sorting out late orders among a crowd of hungry customers. She’s having a Bad Day.

When she brought our order to the table, I commiserated with her about the power outage. Gave her a chance to unload a bit about the frustrating evening. In the end, she brought me a delightfully “hoppy” beer. Sometimes, all people need is someone to ask how it’s going. Someone to listen.  

Unexpected Connections

One of the great joys of talking to people is finding unexpected connections. We pass by “strangers” every day with whom we share much more than we guess. Never has this felt truer than in the darkest days of COVID, when we were all suffering the same fears, frustrations, and the loss of everything that felt “normal.”   

Unsplash: Sigmund

During one of my daily strolls last August, on a street I’ve walked down 11,892 zillion times in the past eighteen months, a boy called out to me: “Do you want to look at the cards I made?” A sandy-haired kid of 8 or 9, he had a display of some two dozen handmade cards on a folding table edging the sidewalk. We exchanged names and I began perusing his stock—a truly impressive and highly original assortment of cards that expressed friendship, humor, love. I asked him how long he’d been making cards and where he got his ideas. Then, I showed him my four or five favorites and told him what I especially liked about each one.

I was honestly sorry I didn’t have any money on me. When I asked if I could come back the next day, the woman who was sitting on the porch steps said he would be going back home to Boston the next morning. She introduced herself as his aunt, and we swapped the sort of basic bio details people offer on meeting. Turned out, she’s a writer, too. We chatted a bit about the state of the publishing industry, the kinds of writing we each do, the markets we’ve published in, and how frustrating querying agents can be.     

Before saying good-bye, I asked the boy if he would be selling his cards in Boston. He said he had sold a few there earlier in the summer. “But some days no one buys anything,” he sighed.    “I hear you,” I said, “I don’t sell everything I write either. But I hope you keep going because your cards are amazing. You have real creative talent.”

I like to think all three of us felt we’d connected through our work as artists of various stripes. I know I did.

More Than A Transaction

Unsplash: Brooke Cagle

Call me weird, but I like to talk to the people I come across in the daily transactions of life: shopkeepers, salespeople, restaurant staff, the guy behind the deli counter, the woman bagging my groceries. Not long-winded discussions on the state of the universe—I understand that people on the job have multiple responsibilities to juggle—but something beyond a curt “I’ll have the Salad Niçoise” or “Please bring the check.”

One of my concerns about the fallout from COVID is the dramatic increase it spurred in what was already an asocial trend: buying everything online, ordering take-out via GrubHub, streaming films at home rather than viewing them on the big screen at the local cinema. Of course, before the vaccine, this was absolutely necessary, but I hope we rally from our sofas and easy chairs, stop ordering everything online, put on our glad rags and go downtown, as Petula Clark advised.      

When the restaurants re-opened in my town in June, one of our first dinners out was at a much-loved Italian restaurant. After the long shutdown, everyone was nodding to and smiling at each other. As the crowd thinned and the pace relaxed, we started chatting with our server, a woman in her early forties, about how wonderful it was to be dining out again and the great need people feel for community. The conversation led her to talk about a related tragedy concerning her daughter. At one point, her eyes filled with tears. She paused, unable to go on. I reached out, put a hand on her arm in consolation. After a moment, she placed her hand atop mine. It was such a basic human connection.  

We are so much more than the outward face we show, the public role we play. Not just a server. Not just a customer. Those simple friendly greetings, those brief exchanges about the day, a humorous remark, a kind word—in those moments, we acknowledge the other person’s humanity and demonstrate our own.

What The World Needs Now

Nothing is more natural than talking to people at an event you’ve both attended. It’s a slam-dunk opportunity to build on the commonalities that brought you there. To strengthen that sense of community. Yet, my observation has been that few people do. When a concert or play or ballgame ends, we tend to rush to the exits, jump in our cars or onto the subway and … flee in silence.

Legendary violinist Joshua Bell is always a BIG draw at Tanglewood, and because he’s such a favorite, the exodus from the lawn afterwards is always s-l-o-w. Everyone lugging their coolers, lawn chairs and tables. Everyone stopping by the restrooms before heading out on the highway.

Never one to waste an opportunity, while Ed was in the loo, I started talking to a woman who was also waiting for her husband. I mentioned how great Joshua Bell is, and that I’d never missed a performance of his since my kids started playing violin. Same here, she said. I told her that when my kids were violin students, all the tween-age female violinists used to crush on Josh, and I’d tease them, saying they didn’t stand a chance because Bell (a very handsome man) was much closer to my age and therefore, I had first dibs.  

The woman laughed and said her daughter had played violin with a group of student musicians following one of Bell’s performances. It became a family joke that Joshua Bell had “opened” for their daughter’s concert. The woman’s husband appeared, wearing a Mets tee shirt, and I mentioned that Ed and I are big baseball fans, he, the Red Sox and me, the Yankees. The couple laughed and asked, “How does that work?” By this point, Ed had joined the conversation, and he related a funny story about a cop in NYC asking us the same question. It was a lovely cap to a wonderful evening.  

Talk to people. It’s not rocket science. It’s not Shakespeare. It’s often not even so much the content of the words as it is the human connection. As the research mentioned earlier noted, it’s our voice—the act of speaking to others—that fosters understanding and creates a bond. The world could really use that now.  

And me? I talk to people because—like most of us—I need them to talk to me.