Years ago, a wonderful man gave me a priceless gift, one that took me years to recognize and use, however.
He was easily the friendliest person I’d ever known. No matter where we were — restaurant, amusement park, clothing store — he’d be making people happy that he was there.
By talking with them. Really talking. (He used to jokingly say he’d talk to a fence post if it would talk back.) I don’t mean talking with other customers, although he’d do that too. No, I mean those folks whom we almost never see the way Bob did.
As people. Real people. People with lives beyond the boundaries we set for them. He’d talk to the clerks, the servers, the receptionists — the too-often-unseen-as-real-people people. The people we label and largely ignore, except when they are performing the task we expect of them.
Bob had the gift of looking beyond the labels of server, receptionist, clerk. He saw the real humans behind the badges, and he spoke to them as such. Nothing big or grand, just mild conversation. But he would smile, he would look them in the eye, and he would comment on something other than what he’d come there for. Something they could both relate to. So for a moment they connected on a personal level, as though they were friends. I was amazed.
Sad to say, I was also embarrassed. Yes. Really. Early on, it just didn’t seem appropriate because I had learned some very odd lessons growing up. One of them had to do with acting appropriately — a good lesson to be sure — but not when it is carried way too far, as it was with me.
In my mind, “those people” were not our friends; they were . . . well, not our friends. They were workers performing some task we needed, whether it was cooking our food, serving our food, or finding an item we needed in a store. They were doing a job. They weren’t our buddies.
Except to Bob, they were. Even for just a few minutes. They were his friends. His buddies. He included them in his circle of warmth.
Sad to say, it took me months to get over my embarrassment, but somewhere along the line I began joining in. I realized I enjoyed seeing a genuine smile from those whose job it was to be nice to us — all because we were friendly. And in a world where servers of all types can expect some abuse, I guess we were a welcome relief.
Don’t get me wrong. I was and am a nice person, and I was and am polite. But I realized — slowly — that polite wasn’t the same thing as friendly. I was reserved in my interactions with those who were working hard to do their job to MY satisfaction, knowing that I held some small power over them.
Being polite or nice is not the same as being friendly.
I saw them as functionaries. I saw their job, their title, their label — but I never really saw their name. I always stayed on my side of the wall between us. Bob never even saw a wall! He saw them as real people. He ALWAYS knew their name and used it with a smile. And he connected at that level, which made those interactions a pleasure for everyone, rather than a chore.
He shared this rare gift with me by his very presence. As I saw how he acted and how others responded, I consciously began to allow my inner friendly person to come out of the shadows and join the party (she had been waiting a long time).
So now, if you’re anywhere with me, you’ll have to either put up with my having conversations with everyone or join in. I find it helps me to have a great time wherever I am, and it appears that others enjoy a quick and FRIENDLY word or two as well. (No, I don’t talk to fence posts, although I do talk to every dog I see. And usually their owners. If they’re lucky.)