Throughout my undergraduate studies I worked at a burger place. Situated across from a hospital, I served many customers, who were waiting out a turbulent moment in life and finding brief respite in a bite and a beer. Often until 3 a.m., I would serve patrons on the all-too-typical intoxicated quest for sustenance, saving them from their otherwise inevitable morning malady. Over the four years I worked there, their faces underwent the gradual shift from unknown to familiar. On occasion, walking down the street and observing those around me, I’d be panged with the querying nudge of almost-recognition–––the foggy notion that I knew that face––– and, suddenly, I’d remember them by their preference in condiments.
These connections are so mundane–––people need food every day, and every day they get it–––and yet the interactions that make it possible are underrated, even unnoticed. Why do we tend to discount these exchanges, or forget about them altogether?
I think it’s a sign of the times. We live in an unprecedently technological age, and it’s affected the way people interact. With all the advantages that accompany our devices, the disadvantages can go undetected. Our smartphones have offered us a formula for our interactions: brief input, instantaneous output; and, if we aren’t careful, this can bleed into our social encounters.
Can you recall the hair colour of the person who handed you your coffee this morning? What about the mood of the cashier who bagged your groceries earlier this week?
The average North American eats a commercially prepared meal five times a week. That’s two hundred and eighty interactions a year with at least one person–––and that doesn’t include those we encounter at the coffee shop, the bus stop, or the local bar.
We can direct our words to the person, not the employee.
In our ever-changing world, the people we encounter within our communities on a daily basis offer an opportunity for us to ground ourselves–––beginning with how we treat those with whom we interact. Yes, when it comes to our phones, a few words is enough to achieve the desired result, but should we really treat those around us the same way? We may be tempted to reduce our engagement with people to the minimally required exchange, but I propose that in our ever-advancing technological space, we keep face-to-face interaction sacred.
Restaurants and bars, as well as other places of gathering, can provide us with a refreshing breather from the stresses of life. A day can be made better through a simple social encounter–––a considerate word, or a kind gesture.
Long-term effects can also be achieved: according to a study from the University of Texas, regular social interaction can contribute to good health and longevity. In fact, there are businesses who choose not to provide Wi-Fi to their customers, hoping this will force them to re-consider their screen time and instead engage in real-life social networks.
This is not a naïve call for the collective creation of some utopic culture wherein we all feel validated through small talk with strangers. Chit-chat is not for everyone and, frankly, it’s not always practical. But we can look people in the eyes. We can direct our words to the person, not the employee. We can remember that the people we interact with on a daily basis are just that–––people.
This is a modest first step in dignifying the human part of “human interaction” that is so often overlooked in our daily lives.