14 June 2016
This morning I sat in a coffee shop next to a woman who was talking to herself and slightly agitated. I was seated next to the window, she was at the table behind mine. I was conscious that I had the window seat, could see the walking traffic, the people in all their colourful manifestations coming and going. I felt bad. I stood up and offered her my seat and moved to another part of the café, against the wall in the back. She did not acknowledge me or my gesture, she remained at the table where she was, sipping on her tea. I did hear her and could make out some of the conversation she was having.
But then the woman did something unexpected. She got up and moved to a table near me, by the back wall. I was not sure how to respond. The woman picked up the Metro newspaper, read a bit and sipped on her tea. Hmmm. Finally, I said, “hello” and we struck up a conversation. It was not a memorable chat, it was neither personal nor awkward and mostly we talked about the rain, the chill in the air, and how everything seemed to be green and growing. It dawned on me that what this person really wanted was some acknowledgement of her presence, not access to the view.
It reminded me again that what people, all people, mostly want from each other is to be acknowledged. We assume people want stuff. We assume we want stuff. But deep down most of what we want and need is to be acknowledged, to have someone look at us, smile, and be present. I don’t like small talk, the weather seems so boring, but I do know that is often how we can be present without scaring others off. There aren’t many who are comfortable with an intense look or talk. But having been acknowledged we feel we are alive, part of something.
And here is the thing I struggle to understand. We know this about ourselves as the one waiting to be greeted but we seem to lose sight of this understanding when we are the ones who are the familiar face, the existing presence when the newcomer arrives. Oddly we make lots of assumptions about how friendly or unfriendly others are when we ourselves behave no different than the one we felt slighted by, the one who does not say hello.
As an extrovert I know it is easier for me. But what mystifies me are the introverts who judge other introverts so harshly for failing to acknowledge the other. Most of my extrovert friends know they are rare and make allowance for others who are reluctant to start up a conversation. But my introvert friends, who will rarely walk up to a stranger, feel deeply slighted if other introverts do not seek them out for conversation.
The greatest gift we can offer is always ourselves.