Years ago, a wonderful man gave me a rare gift, a priceless one one that took me years to recognize and use.
He was easily the friendliest person I’d ever known. No matter where we were – a restaurant, an amusement park, a clothing store – he’d be making people happy that he was there.
By talking with them. I don’t mean talking with other customers, although he’d do that too. No, I mean talking to those folks whom we almost never see the way Bob did, those who are often invisible behind their nametag or title.
Bob had the gift of looking beyond the labels of server, receptionist, clerk. He saw the real humans behind the labels – the too-often-unseen-as-real-people people – and he spoke to them as such. Nothing big or grand, and nothing intrusive, just mild conversation. But he would smile his huge and somewhat goofy 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, like how hard it must have been to get to work in the rain that morning, or hoping they’d get a chance to be outside later in the sun.
And that bit of light conversation made a true human-to-human connection with just the right tone. His delight in talking with them was infectious, and nearly everyone on the receiving end grinned back!
I was amazed.
Sad to say, I was also embarrassed. Yes. Really. Early on, it just didn’t seem quite right, 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’s used to exclude, not include, people, as it was with my mother.
In her mind, “those people” were not our friends; they were … well, functionaries. They were performing some task we needed done, 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 equals. So our interactions were cordial and polite, but not friendly.
But to Bob, they were his friends, just ones he hadn’t met yet. So he included them in his circle of warmth for those few minutes, one nice human connecting with another.
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.
Bob shared this gift with me by his very presence. He never lectured me or commented on my coolness in those situations. But as I saw how he acted –
and especially how others responded – I consciously began to allow my inner friendly person to come out of the closet and join the party (she had been waiting a long time). And I realized all I’d missed growing up – seeing us all as humans, just doing different jobs.
Don’t get me wrong. I was and am a nice person, and I was and am polite. But I realized — slowly — that being polite wasn’t the same thing as being friendly and caring.
So now, if you’re anywhere with me, I hope you’ll either put up with my talking to everyone we meet or – even better – 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 I can remember their name. Oh, and don’t get me started on infants and their moms in stores.)