January 11, 2014

My mother forgot to tell me not to talk to strangers

I am almost compulsively friendly, an enthusiastic talker-to-strangers. It wasn't always so. My friend M and I have a running a joke about about asking a man a harmless question like, "When is the train expected?," or "Do you have to feed the meter today?," only to be met with an uncomfortable mumble, "Um, I am waiting for my girlfriend." I used to think this was code for  "Are you hitting on me? You aren't attractive enough to speak to me. Go away," but now I give myself the benefit of the doubt; I assume it means, "Just go away." So much for asking strangers innocuous questions!

But since I have had the boys, I have become utterly shameless about talking to strangers. I ask other shoppers for their opinions, I discuss produce with passers-by at the grocery store, I offer suggestions to hapless shoe shoppers, I flirt with toddlers and their parents. I began this behavior, I think, to model pro-social interactions for the boys, thanking servers and cashiers, asking librarians and retail staff for help. 

Truth be told, there are darker reasons. Middle-aged women become background and fade into invisibility. To wit, no one has told me of their girlfriend's imminent return lately. And even sadder, for twelve years, when 98% of my interactions were with Hart or Jeff or their teachers, I was just lonely, and longed to talk to a normal human being, without the onerous backstory of parenting two disabled children. There, I have admitted it. 

Now it has become some bizarre habit. I am not affronted if people don't engage. A one-word answer or lack of eye contact is hint enough. 

Recently, I had an experience that made me question whether I have become intrusive or annoying, or both. An old friend and I met for coffee, settling ourselves into a circle of armchairs at Starbucks. Another man was already occupying one of the chairs and working on his computer. Periodically, he looked up and smiled at us, as we caught up on a decade's worth of news. At one point, an older gentleman came over to greet this guy, and I noted that computer-man responded in Israeli-accented English. 

As we were getting up to leave, I said, in Hebrew, "I see you are an Israeli. I was just there this summer." (I have done this before. Usually if you tell someone you have been to their home country, they ask how you liked it and what you did. In the case of meeting Danish people, they always laugh because the one sentence I can say perfectly in Danish is, "I don't speak any Danish.") To my astonishment, this guy leaned forward and said, clearly, in English, "Why do you tell me this? I do not care at all that you have been to Israel." My friend was at once, embarrassed and horrified. I backed up a few feet. "OK, excuse me." It was not enough. "I DO NOT CARE AT ALL. WHY TALK TO ME?" I put up my hands and made a hasty exit. 

Uncalled for, right? But I imagine this guy going home to tell his friends and family, "I was drinking coffee, working on my computer, minding my own business, when some crazy American woman starts speaking to me in Hebrew. What is that about?" 

Maybe I should think about dialing it back. Hart and Jeff are unlikely ever to be appropriately social. My job as an example is over. Now I am just stuck with a bad habit.


Laurie Ruth said...

He was completely inappropriate in his response. There is never a rationale for rude behavior of that extreme. Had he politely smiled and said "how nice" and then turned away, he would have cued you in not to speak to him. He embarrassed himself.

vince didato said...

Hi Lydia. I enjoyed your writing! There are many people who would have been delighted by what you said in Hebrew. I am sorry your attempt to be friendly was met with hostility. The problem was not with you. ��