I was in line at a Starbucks when this guy to my back started chatting me up about raw sugar. “It’s so much better than the processed white stuff,” was his gist, and I just kind of nodded, making sure to smile so as to maintain a base level of a friendly enough disposition, but without responding to anything more than, “Oh yeah?” and, “huh.”
It’s like, you find yourself in a situation like that, where you’re in line, where you’re dealing with an unknown variable introduced into your fixed amount of time spent waiting, there aren’t too many options. Of course, you could just leave, just make an abrupt exit. That would certainly be the easiest way of not having to address that variable.
But then you wouldn’t have your coffee, and that’s why you’re standing in line in the first place. And so, bound to the fact that there’s nothing that you can really do for the foreseeable future, you’ve either got to engage this unknown, or ignore it. There’s potential for danger in either situation.
Some people don’t like being ignored. If someone says something to you, and you don’t respond back, you’re sending your own message: not interested, back off. Assuming you’re not dealing with a total psycho, then at the very minimum, the rest of that wait is going to be awkward, regardless of how cool you try to play things off.
But if you decide to engage, how far should you insert yourself into the conversation? My tactic is always to do what I did above, to just kind of not commit to anything. “Yes, I hear you. I acknowledge that you are saying something to me,” is the underlying message of anything coming out of my mouth. And even this doesn’t always work, depending on how aggressive the other person is in pushing his or her point of view.
In the case of processed vs. raw sugars, I could just tell that this guy had an agenda. And the fact that he wasn’t afraid to start hurling his opinions at a random stranger in line at a coffee shop made me assume that he’d have no problem exploring the boundaries of just how far this interaction could go.
But my very passive contributions seemed to have worked, and after a while this guy started bothering someone else. “Hey man, can you believe how much post-consumer waste just winds up choking our local ecosystems?”
When he got to the barista, I could hear him making sure to specify his preference in raw sugar over the white stuff. “I don’t want that toxic crap anywhere near my latte.” And the barista was like, “Sir, unless you want a flavored syrup, all of the sweeteners are at the counter behind you, right next to the milk and napkins.”
And I’d been listening to this guy for a lot longer than I wanted to. Again, I didn’t have a choice in the matter, not if I wanted my coffee. Still, a big part of me wanted to be like, “All right man, we get it, you don’t like processed sugars. But what the hell dude? You’ve never been to a Starbucks before? You don’t know about the sugar packets on the counter to the back? Come on man, cut the act, all right? Make your own hippie coffee at home, because this place is about as industrialized as a cup of coffee gets.”
But of course I didn’t say that, because that would have only extended my forced coexistence with this bozo for a potentially really long amount of time. And I didn’t want that. I wanted my coffee. And then I wanted out.