I just finished a fantastic audiobook called Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. It’s a touching and sad story about what happened to a young Jewish girl during the German occupation of France in 1942. Interwoven into Sarah’s story is the contemporary story of an American woman, Julia, who lived in France for 25 years. This book has parts that made my stomach clench with fear, anger and grief, and moments that made me almost cry for the love of the characters. If you are at all into audiobooks, or even just books, I highly recommend it. Toward the end of the book, Julia is comparing American and French customs of greetings, being polite, and the lack thereof in either culture. It got me to thinking about myself and how I interact with strangers.
Growing up, we would go camping, and during those camping trips the family usually went for an evening walk. My dad would always greet the people walking toward us. “Howdy,” “evening,” those sorts of things. My sister and I made friends with the other kids in the campgrounds. We were friendly, open children, with friendly, open parents. We were raised to be polite, say thank you, please, excuse me, and all the phrases that indicate some good manners were instilled in us.
As an adult, I became a little more closed. Even though I would say excuse me while trying to make my way past another shopper in the crowded aisles at Ross, or beg your pardon as I pushed her cart out of the way (when she stubbornly refused to grant me access to the sizes I wanted), I realized at some point that I really didn’t speak to strangers unless absolutely necessary. I didn’t feel the need or the desire to share superficial banter with the people in the elevator at my office, or exchange platitudes with other frazzled and frumpy middle-aged moms at Vons. It wasn’t that I intended to be rude, I just didn’t find a need to be friendly.
Having a child has changed this about me. Strangers come up and compliment us on Melody’s behavior. They ask about her age and what she is doing. They comment on how cute or sweet she is. I can’t just ignore them of course, so I talk to them. In turn, I have found it easier to approach strangers and engage them in conversation. Here’s a perfect example. Today I was at Joann’s (where my expenditures are quickly rivaling Target’s) and I saw this fluff of curly brown hair sticking up over the top of a display of buttons. If you’ve been to a Joann’s you know that these button “walls” are about 7 feet high. Perplexed, I wondered if it was a toy, a tall person? What? Then it disappeared and I heard a child giggling. Of course, it was someone holding their child on their shoulders. Once I finished what I was doing, I happened to walk in that direction and saw the family was still there – a very tall man, a petite wife (of course!) and an adorable little boy with a fluff of curly brown hair. I told them what I had first thought…that is one really tall dude! We all laughed, I walked away, smiling. They were smiling too.
In the sharing of that little story, I brightened my day and hopefully theirs. It doesn’t hurt to be polite, nice, friendly and courteous to strangers. Try it some time. You might find that just by saying “thanks” to a cashier – and actually meaning it – will enhance your day as well as theirs.