September 20, 2009

Compulsive Connectivity

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 7:16 am

My mother strikes up conversations with absolutely anybody, anywhere, about anything. When I was a teenager I was mortified by this – “Mom, that’s so embarrassing!” However, about 20 years ago I realized I had caught her affliction: compulsive connectivity. This includes saying “hi” to everyone, issuing genuine compliments, and sometimes engaging in lengthy conversations with strangers. All her life, my mom has been reaching out, creating connections where previously none existed and, I think, making the world a bit better for it.

Because my mom is a shopper, most of her impromptu conversations take place in stores. And because I’m a walker – racking up 20 to 30 miles a week – most of mine take place right here in my neighborhood. Today while walking I decided that there are three levels to compulsive connectivity: The first is just saying “hi” when you see or pass someone. Many if not most of us do that; it’s common in a town like Sonoma. (In fact, have you ever tried walking the Sebastiani path with a friend? As it is customary to greet all passersby, your conversations tend to go something like this: “So I was telling — hi! — him that we have to — hey, how are ya? — get our tax information — good afternoon! — together and send it to — nice day!” Cheerful but wearying.)

The second level of connectivity is adding a comment: “Good morning – I love your garden!” And the third and most risky level would be actually asking a question of a stranger. “Ooh nice hat, where’d you get it?” Over time I’ve graduated to Level 3, and I have to warn you, it doesn’t always turn out well. Yesterday while walking I saw a man in his 30s with a long black cord tied to the back of his truck. It looked like he was trying to pull his truck backwards with the cord. Curious, I piped up, “Hi, whatcha doin’?” He glared at me and I know he wanted to tell me to mind my own business, or worse, but he replied brusquely, “Stripping. Wire.” Sensing the negativity vibe, I said, “Ah, very clever,” and skedaddled.

Which brings us to demographics. You might ask, Is there any particular gender or age group that is most likely to greet me back? Yes – men in their 60s and 70s are most friendly; people in their 20s seem to be least friendly. Long ago I decided I would always say “hi” to children, because I thought that to walk by without greeting them would give them a picture of a hostile, sullen world. So I still greet kids, even though sometimes I get no reply. (Of course, they’ve been taught not to talk to strangers, right?)

This week as the weather is nicer and we’re out and about more, I suggest you try some compulsive connectivity of your own — and stretch yourself a bit. If you’re at Level 1, try adding a comment to your greeting; if at Level 2, add a question. (We’ll start a movement and call it “Say It Forward.”) Remember it may not work out; on the other hand, you may be rewarded quite richly. After all, Californians are a witty bunch. When Neal and I were vacationing at Morro Bay we walked down to the pier and, spying a guy with rod and reel we cheerfully greeted him and, Level 3 style, called out, “How’s the fishing?” He flashed a big smile and replied, “Fishin’s great!” As we started to walk away, he totally cracked us up by adding “But the catchin’s terrible!”

Times are tough, and these moments of happy connection are free – but then Mom knew that all along.

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