Let’s Try an Experiment
Posted Thursday, September 1st, 2011
Two weeks ago I shared some thoughts with you about how the interactions we have with others sometimes can create memories that stay with us – or with them – for a lifetime.
Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the almost rote and pro-forma verbal interactions we have with other people during the course of the day that most often are forgotten almost as quickly as they happen.
Sometimes they are with people we don’t know at all and might never encounter again, like the check-out person at a supermarket or a customer service agent on the phone. But they also take place with folks we run into regularly – neighbors, co-workers, members of the same churches or organizations.
The typical interaction goes something like this:
1) “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” or “How are you doing?”
2) “Fine” or “Good.” “How about you?”
3) “Fine. Thanks for asking.”
And then it’s over.
It’s almost as if the script is required as part of our participation in the human race, yet we recite it without even thinking much about what we’re saying.
Talk about missed opportunities!
Every little encounter like that offers us a chance to recognize our common humanity, and perhaps even to bring a little light, or joy, or compassion into someone else’s life. But that doesn’t happen often, because it requires one of us to break the pattern of that standard script and open the door to something more meaningful.
We often find ourselves so caught up in the issues and illusions of our daily lives that we allow those opportunities to pass without even thinking about how a genuine, caring, thoughtful interaction – even a brief one – might affect the other person.
I, of course, am as guilty of that as anyone, but I had two notable interactions during our recent trip to Ohio with people whose responses to my Question #1 broke the usual pattern and made me stop and think.
The first was with a family member who had had a very close encounter with cancer some years ago, but who has been in remission for four years. His response to my “How are you?” was “Vertical and ventilating.”
My hunch is that his humorous – yet very serious – comment had become one of his standard responses to the usual patter. But it immediately started a serious conversation about his own well being and how he had dealt with his challenges.
The other was even more surprising and frustrating. We were boarding an airplane, and one of the flight attendants was standing in the cabin door greeting folks as they filed by.
When he said hello, I mindlessly asked him how he was doing, and his response was something like this: “Well, my health is good and my family is OK, but everything else is going down the tubes.”
I was speechless, and because the line of passengers on the completely full flight kept pushing and shuffling down the aisle, that was the end of the interaction. His totally unexpected comment, which clearly indicated a great deal of personal pain, was left hanging, and I was unable to reply.
Both of those responses to a question that usually does not expect a serious answer were from people who were willing to risk sharing a bit of themselves in order to open the door to a meaningful exchange with another human being.
I wonder how many of us – either questioners or responders – might be willing to deviate from the norm enough to nudge that door open a little. It’s possible to ask the question about the other person’s well being in a way that conveys a genuine interest in the answer; and it’s also possible to respond to the question in a way that might give the other person a glimpse, however minor, into what’s going on in our lives.
I’m going to try an experiment for the next week, and I’m wondering if any of you might be willing to join me.
Let’s try to remember to break out of the mold in as many of those encounters as possible, just to find out what happens. Maybe we can set a new pattern for ourselves in how we handle those little interactions. And, just maybe, we can be touching other people’s lives in ways we can’t even imagine.
I’ll report back to you next week, and I’d love to hear your results, as well. Let’s give it a try.