I have blogged before about how I am not one to be chatty with strangers. I can be a trifle reserved even in places where “the roof constitutes an introduction”, but with random strangers in public places, I am generally very aloof. Most of the time, that’s simply because I am preoccupied with my own thoughts. Or I'm just not in the mood to be social, and I am pretending I'm invisible. So I try not be out-and-out rude, but any attempts to strike up a conversation with me in a grocery store line or on a street corner will not flourish. It’s just…how I am.
I know people who are the opposite: friendly and prone to chatting with anyone who crosses their path. Usually I just shrug and dismiss it as a matter of personal style. Occasionally, though, I think: Huh, other people seem to enjoy those conversations, so maybe I’m missing out on something here.
But I should know better, because somehow that talking-to-strangers thing just never works out well for me.
Latest example: The other day I had an errand to run in Nordstrom Medical Tower. It’s a tall building, and it can be a long elevator ride from the lobby to the upper floors. Two women got on the elevator with me. And for some reason, I consciously decided that I would emulate Max and be friendly to these two strangers.
(You’d think I’d know better. I have had several notably bad – if amusing in retrospect – encounters with people on elevators. But no, I never learn.)
Thus, I said, “Good morning.” For me, that is a wildly effusive thing to say in this situation.
One of them, an older lady who reminded me a bit of my own grandmother, smiled and said good morning back, and observed that the sky looked as if it might rain later. I agreed that it was indeed rather cloudy.
My other elevator companion was a stocky, thirty-something woman, wearing glasses with thick, dark frames, and a white lab coat over office attire. Her black hair was straggling out of a haphazard-looking bun, and she had a tangle of three or four ID badges on brightly-colored lanyards around her neck. She was carrying a thick stack of file folders in one arm. She murmured a response to my greeting and began fiddling with her folders.
My social duty done, I pulled out my Blackberry and started scrolling through Twitter posts. The older lady got off the elevator, leaving me alone with the lab-coated woman.
The doors closed. Then I heard her make an impatient sort of huffing noise. I looked up and met her black-framed gaze inquiringly. Is one not supposed to be text-messaging in elevators now?
“Oh,” she said in an explanatory way, “I just had a very bad encounter with someone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, rather automatically. What, the old lady? Me? No, she’s talking about something else.
“People can be such assholes, can’t they? Goddamn it.”
Whoa, swearing. Is that a conventional response to someone in an elevator saying good morning? Seems like we’re upping the conversational stakes here. Not in a good way.
I made some noncommittal noise, nodded sympathetically, and turned my face down towards my phone again. We’re done talking now, all right? The numbered buttons next to the door lit up and then went dark, one by one, as we ascended. Not very quickly, though.
“I mean, it’s the end result that matters, right? What’s best for the people involved?”
Unwillingly, I looked up at her. She was shifting from one sensibly-shod foot to the other, and clawing ineffectually at the locks of hair that were hanging around her face. She made the huffing noise again, pressing her lips together and blowing air out her nose in irritable little bursts.
“Really,” she said, speaking more quickly, “it doesn’t matter is everyone else thinks you’re crazy, right? If it’s for the best? Even if everyone else thinks you’re absolutely fucking insane?”
Um, yeah – it actually might matter if everyone else thinks you’re crazy. Because, you know, you might be. And here I am, in the damn elevator with you. I just hope one of those badges around your neck doesn’t say License To Kill on it.
When I choose to engage in it, I am rarely at a loss for polite social chitchat, but being in an elevator with an angry, swearing stranger who is proposing that insane ends justify insane means – well, that stumped me.
Just then, the elevator emitted a ping! sound. Saved by the bell. I said something like, “hope that works out okay,” slipped sideways through the doors as they were still opening, and made my escape down the hall.
You see, this is what happens to me when I say good morning to people.