ASK and Ye Shall Receive

Assumptions for Social Kinship


I was walking down the hall to the elevator this afternoon, and the door of another apartment opened. Seeing my neighbours always makes me depressed. Seeing my neighbours is a reminder of how little we know about the people who live so close. How little we care, maybe. Apartments are amazing experiments in social behaviour: cram dozens of random strangers together, and watch how hard they work to ignore each other.

I am trying to change this feeling. I am friendly with my neighbours, co-patrons at restaurants, strangers waiting with me at the light. It’s funny: I think that somehow, in big cities especially, we’ve developed this idea that other people don’t want to be bothered. That talking to strangers is a sign of weakness, or vulnerability. And it was that feeling that put me on edge, and made me start to put up my Shield of Unresponsiveness when the apartment disgorged its occupant.

He was about my age, wearing a toque and holding a granola bar and a banana.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey, how’s it goin’,” he said.

(Harmless comments penetrate the Shield.)

“Good thanks,” I said. “How’re you?” This last line a question. An actual question. I didn’t expect an answer, but I tried to instill some authentic interest in my inflection.

He paused. “Not bad,” he said.

(“Lower the Shields!”)

I passed him and headed to the elevator. Pushed the call button. He stood beside me. This was the stupidest time of all. Silence like holding your breath. Looking straight ahead as though we were both taking a piss. Finally the elevator arrived and we mentally exhaled, shook and zipped up.

I pushed the [G] button, and when the elevator doors closed, the silence started all over again. I looked down at the ground. Something to say. Something to say. Why? Because this was unnatural. To be stuck within arm’s length of this guy and not interact with him is unnatural, and we’ve somehow been brainwashed to think it’s polite. Or maybe safe.

Christ, we weren’t even at the fifth floor yet.

I looked over and saw his shoes. They were moss green, the kind you slip on your feet (or at least I couldn’t see the laces under his jean cuffs). I liked them. I’ve been thinking about getting a pair like them. Dear God, do I dare ask about them?

“Are those shoes slip-ons?” I asked. And yes, it is the gayest question I’ve ever asked.

“Yeah,” he said, smiling, lifting his cuff a bit to show me what they look like. And suddenly we were on the ground floor. The doors opened. (Yes, in case you missed it, that was symbolism there.)

We talked. He got the shoes in Montreal. He’s just moved here. Staying in the apartment for the week with his folks. We’re temporary neighbours. He’s Ryan. I’m Josh. How do I like the place. Not bad, except for the newly-missing roommate. He knows some people looking for a place. Great. Come by and knock any time. Cool. Okay. See ya later, man.

Just like that. See ya later, man.

Am I alone in wishing that the world felt more like a party than a funeral? Is the world really a place where millions of people mill around each other, praying not to be confronted by another person? Or are we so desperate for contact that we don’t dare open our mouths for fear of showing our need? Our loneliness? Deep down, don’t we all share that guilty, hidden desire to be approached by a total stranger: hey, is that a good book? Wish I’d remembered an umbrella! How do you get your hair to go like that? Do you know a good place to eat around here?

I think I can sum up this idea with three statements. I call them the “Assumptions for Social Kinship,” or ASK:

  1. Everyone out there has something worthwhile to teach me.
  2. They want to teach me.
  3. They cannot initiate the lesson.

Give it a try. Think of this the next time you’re in the elevator, in line at the grocery store, or waiting for friends in a movie or at the bar. It’s easy. Just ASK.

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