Tuesday, July 24, 2012


For awhile now, I’ve felt that Vancouver and I are a mismatch.  But then I saw myself in a series of articles the Vancouver Sun ran a month ago.  Vancouverites are disconnected.  They avoid contact, even simple greetings while walking the seawall.

And I thought it was just me.

When I lived in an apartment in Vancouver’s West End, I never acknowledged the neighbors.  I guess I always assumed that was my intensely reserved nature, but then I remembered the quick hellos—nothing more—with neighbors in L.A.  I can even recall some of their faces.  Not so my West End mates.

The Sun series proves I didn’t start the antisocial thing.  It’s a Vancouver way of being.  And I certainly embraced it.  Why tax the vocal cords, eh? 

Oh, I am self-aware enough to know this is not healthy.  I have chided myself for regularly staring at my shoelaces and random spots on elevator walls.  What’s the harm in “hello”?

Still, I regularly rationalize my (in)action.  I am not the chitchat type.  The weather is self-evident.  My commentary—“Sure is sunny today”—adds nothing.  Maybe Vancouver folk are exceedingly rule oriented.  We were raised with “Don’t talk to strangers” and it just stuck.

I’ve actually stopped going to a Starbucks in West Van where the baristas are too friendly.  Just the coffee, thank you.  I’m not awake enough to tell you how my day’s going.  And you don’t really care.  Do you? 

Schmoozers make me cringe.  I know they don’t care where I got my worn out shoes.  Off-season Canuck talk is utterly irrelevant.  And, no, I have no opinion about whether Tiger Woods is back to his old self and whether you mean on or off the links.

If you want to talk about a work issue or gay marriage or the prospects of an NDP-Liberal merger, I’m in.  Conversation with purpose.  Your weekend plan to repaint the bathroom?  No thanks.  Again, just the coffee.

But I didn’t need a newspaper series to point out the obvious.  Give nothing, get nothing. 

At forty-seven, I wonder if this old dog can change.  I have made the first step, acknowledging that I am part of the problem.  It’s now up to me to follow the mantra on some mass-produced inspirational poster:  Be the Change. 

It’s hard to break my efficiency way of thinking.  It’s okay for talk to be mindless, I tell myself.  It doesn’t matter that I may never see the person again.  People are supposed to be social creatures.  Hermits are the exception. 

This past weekend, I went for a drive with the dog, heading for a hiking spot a couple of hours away.  Hadn’t been in years.  One of the things I particularly love about the destination is there is a bakery five minutes into the walk, a charming What-the-Hell-Is-This-Doing-Here stop.  I didn’t need a snack, but the place was a part of the experience.

I ogled the tarts and scones, waiting for the guy in front of me to get his refill.  Impatience simmered as the customer chattered with the counter guy about the drive out from Ontario and his daughter’s growing postcard collection.  One of the dinosaur place in Alberta, one from Moose Jaw,...got it. 

I tried to make eye contact with the counter guy who extended the conversation, talking about running the bakery for the past thirteen summers and winter travels to Mexico with his wife and son. 

This would have been the perfect time for me to practice my greetings.  Only my hello would have come off with an edge, a frustrated alternative to “Yoo-hoo?!”  Instead, I shuffled on my feet, pretended to rethink my choice of pastry and wondered if I had, in fact, asked for this state of invisibility.

When the time finally came for me to order, I realized the tourist wasn’t totally to blame for the gift of gab.  The owner tried to engage me in a yakfest, too.  “Was I spending some time in the park today?”  Isn’t that self-evident?  “Was I hungry?”  Uh, again, let’s go with self-evident.  “Was the barking dog mine?”  Yes.  And he wasn’t barking for the first five minutes.  I said as little as possible, paid and got on with the solitary hike.  (That beast, pictured on the path, is my dog, leading the way away from civilization.)

Okay, so my casual social skills are a work in progress. 

Yesterday, at my coffee stop in town, I asked the server, “How was your weekend?” 

“Good,” she answered.  “How was yours?”


And this is getting somewhere, right? 

I’ll keep at it.  If I ever do make a big move, to a city other than Vancouver, I may need to actually know how to say something.  And nothing.

1 comment:

Rick Modien said...

RG, a part of me feels exactly as you do. Just the coffee, please (although I don't drink coffee).

But a part of me knows, as I realize you do, that I must be a part of the solution and not the problem.

Really, when it comes right down to it, minor small talk doesn't waste that much energy or take that much time, and it really is harmless. So we're not talking about how to bring about world peace. That's okay. Sometimes, all we need to do is connect to each other, in the most minor way.

And never forget, the few kind words you exchange with another human being, or the smile you offer, could potentially make a big difference in his or her day.

I'm surprised you haven't gotten into the spirit of the rural area where you live. When we moved to MR, Chris and I were greeted on the sidewalk by ninety-five percent of the people we encountered. Felt odd, at first, but we're into it now, and I greet everyone when I go out for a run, or when Chris and I go for a walk. It feels good to develop this habit. Really. It does.

C'mon, RG. You can do this. Don't be such a curmudgeon, eh.