The other day I took a walk around the block to get some groceries and free my mind from the confines of my house. As I made my way through my neighborhood, I noticed someone waving to me from across the road. I nodded in return. The next two people I passed smiled and wished me well. I reciprocated. I had two further encounters, both of whom wanted to engage in a conversation, albeit a socially distanced one. One person stopped to talk to me about his recycling bins. An elderly couple stopped to chat about how windy it was. I did my best to join in the small talk and got back on my way.
The experience left me a little confused. Why was everyone so friendly? And, more worryingly, why did I engage with them?
Typically, I would have done anything to remove myself from this kind of situation. I’ll admit right now — I don’t like small talk and don’t often make time to hear out total strangers.
But, in this surreal moment in our lives, something feels different. As I continue to isolate, I’m finding myself missing the most meaningless of things. And it seems, based on my walk, that many people are feeling the same way. Now that we’re isolating, the realization that we have taken the most basic of human interaction for granted is dawning upon us.
The more I think about it, the more I miss the strangest of things that I would have typically dreaded.
1. I miss queueing at the bar and that odd interaction where you stare at each other, trying to decide who was first to be served.
2. I miss that awkward moment when the restaurant waiter asks how your meal is at the exact time your mouth is full.
3. I miss talking to the neighbor about the standard of each other’s methods of gardening.
4. I miss that cringey moment where you both say “no, you first” at a doorway, and then end up walking into each other.
5. I miss the uncomfortable moment at a coffee shop where you all stand in a silent huddle at the end of the counter, waiting for your order to be called out.
6. I miss passing someone you sort-of-know on the street and being unsure whether they recognize you too, both slowing down before speeding past each other.
7. I miss going in for a handshake, before realizing the other person was going for a hug, switching to a hug before realizing the person had changed to a handshake.
8. I miss the small-talk in the barbers, however excruciating it can be.
9. I miss going over to talk to someone, and waiting patiently, only to realize they’re in the middle of an in-depth conversation and not ready for me.
10. I miss that moment when you can’t hear someone and have already asked, “What?” twice, so on the third time you don’t understand, you just nod slowly and smile.
11. I miss the dentist.
12. I even find myself wishing that the meeting that we now know can be done through email could go back to being a meeting again.
The obvious takeaway from all this is that I will never again take for granted the most basic level of interacting with other human beings. And I hope others can follow suit. While the language of this virus is all based on ‘self,’ isolation has made me realize that we could all spend a bit more time being empathetic towards other people.
But there’s something more.
Going an extended period of time without experiencing any of these things has made me aware that it’s the most simple of interactions that can bring us moments of laughter and joy. It those moments that can form memories that we can look back on fondly (even if some make us wince.)
When we all get back out there, take a moment to appreciate the seemingly embarrassing moments in life, and realize that they are just reminders that we are trying to figure this world out together, one awkward situation at a time.