I am in the home goods section of Meijer studying baskets, wondering if my next house project of repurposing a dining room cabinet into a dresser is brilliant or hairbrained, when she rolls up next to me. At first, I keep my distance, having learned the dance of the past year, the one that accompanies the thought, “Keep your breath to yourself.”
I look at her and we smile with our eyes, another trick we’ve both learned. There are baskets in her cart as well, different ones than the ones on the shelves before me. “Hey, where’d you get those?” I ask.
She tells me excitedly about a second display a few aisles over, and then we are talking about baskets and home projects. She bought a new table, you see. There’s an empty space underneath, and it looks oddly empty. She pulls out her phone, holds it out to me and shows me pictures. She tells me about a conversation she had with her sister, and then she tells me about it again as we consider the wall of baskets before us, measuring, thinking, chatting.
I suppose our exchange would put an average eavesdropper to sleep, but there’s something unique about it, something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s raw and genuine and necessary, more than just a transaction between strangers. She sighs audibly and says, “I miss talking to people.”
And there it is. It’s a simple thing, something we took for granted not that long ago.
Interactions with people on the periphery, people psychologists call “consequential strangers,” are important. They help us feel connected to the world around us; they anchor us in meaningful, often subliminal, ways to the rest of our beautiful lives.
Most of us have adapted, yes. We’ve learned to teach and shop and go to meetings, school, church, and even the doctor online. But most of us feel like something important is missing, something necessary and authentic and real.
Truth is, we can Zoom and Instacart our butts off, but no two-dimensional interaction replaces a three-dimensional life in the long run. We benefit from meeting and interacting face-to-face with strangers and acquaintances alike.
You may not know the names of the barista, librarian, receptionist, grocery bagger, postal clerk, or cashier, but their lives are important to your own. Remember that woman who works the self-checkout with the long brown hair and the pleasant face? She helps make life worth living. Don’t you miss her?
They say it takes 21 days to create a habit. Our new established patterns have been necessary, but not necessarily healthy for us in the long run. Once this season of face masks and personal bubbles is over, it will take us a while to relearn to talk to people face-to-face.
It will take effort to trust one another again, to re-anchor ourselves within our communities, to allow consequential strangers to be within six feet of us, and to share our thoughts and laughter. And yes, even our breath.
The effort will be worth it. Our communities require it. If the researchers are right (and I believe they are), so do our very souls.
Eileen Button teaches Communication at Mott Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.