Don’t Talk to Strangers

I don’t think of myself as an unfriendly sort. I have no problem smiling at strangers, making good eye contact— that kind of thing. I have been fairly pegged as someone who suffers from RBF,* but I’ve developed a level of control over it, when it’s appropriate (like in professional or dating situations).

Though it doesn’t come naturally, I’ve schooled myself in the art of small-talk, I can do pleasant chit chat and leave you with a very positive impression.

But by comparison, my mom makes me look agoraphobic and hostile.

Last night, we went to church. It was a holy day of obligation on top of a pretty stressful day. I ran from thing to thing all day long, and I had an odd mix of atta-girls and swift kicks to show for the day. I didn’t even walk all the way into the house when I got home— I opened the door and said “you ready?” to my mom and we were off.

The church we went to (not our regular church, but one we know well) tacked an extra thing onto the holy day celebration (benediction and adoration and the conclusion of a novena, for my Catholics.) They promised it would be fast and strongly urged us to stay for it. We did.

When it wrapped up (as advertised on the extra time commitment), a woman came up and started talking to my mother. They’ve never met each other. I sat there for 20 minutes (not exaggerating) while the woman gave my mother her life and family history, before I sighed heavily. They started moving toward the door. We made our way outside the church and chatted. After about 5 minutes of that, I walked to the car. My teeth were chattering (I was bare-legged, and though the December night was warm-ish, it’s December). I pulled the car around to the front of the church so my mom could get in. Another 7 minutes passed before she was done. It’s after 7:30, we haven’t had dinner. We don’t go to this church and my mom may never see this person, who she doesn’t know, again.

Next to three hours in the grocery store, there are few things that I’ve hated my entire life like waiting outside church for my mom to finish chatting with someone. I don’t even understand this phenomenon. I have friends at church, sometimes we chat for a couple of minutes afterward. I’ve even been approached by friendly strangers after church. We chat for a few minutes before I say “well, it’s been so nice to meet you,” and make my goodbyes.

There are common themes in my lifelong frustrations with my mom, and her inability/unwillingness to extract herself from such conversations at meal times is a big one. When I was a kid, if my dad unexpectedly brought someone home with him from work for a drink, they could stay until 10 or 11 p.m. Often, our dinner was made and in the oven that whole time, but if the person wasn’t there for dinner, dinner wouldn’t get served until ridiculously late. Hers was not a self-service kitchen— she’d feed you, if you needed feeding, and if you took matters into your own hands, there’d be trouble. The same thing was/is true if she is on the phone at mealtimes, or, in this situation, where we’re waiting to go to dinner and suddenly she’s deep into a conversation with somebody anybody.

One of the frustrating things about it is that it can happen at any time. Food can be on the table when the phone rings, and everything gets put on hold. She apologizes after the fact, but I have a difficult time taking the apologies seriously, because to me, this is very much within her control.

I guess it’s a difference in priority— because this has frustrated me for my entire life, if you call me at mealtimes, I might not answer the phone, or I’ll mention it in the first few minutes (“I can chat for a minute, but we’re sitting down to eat, so what’s up?”) or I’ll eat while I talk to you, and say “I hope you don’t mind if I eat while we talk.”) If you’re in my house at dinnertime, I’ll offer you food, and make clear that it’s dinnertime. If you say no to food/something to drink, I’ll say “I hope you don’t mind if I eat.” And if you come up to me in a public place when we’re on our way to dinner, I’ll chat for five minutes and then we’re done. If you choose to take a call when I’m serving dinner, I’m not going to stop serving/eating dinner. This is, by the way, the single best thing about me doing all of the cooking and cleaning of the kitchen— we eat when I say we eat. I’ve made a deliberate decision to prioritize people who are in person over people at a distance, primary relationships over strangers, etc. This feels like a very defensible position to me.

And yet, this is one of the areas where I feel hugely irrational and impatient and unfriendly. It’s clear that someone who comes up and wants to be best friends with a stranger is lonely and going through something, and if you can’t have compassion and listen to that person while you’re literally in a church, when will you? But by the same token, I do think you should be able to draw a line and say that chatting for 5 minutes in the parking lot is friendly but that chatting for longer than that is maybe excessive. I also think there’s a difference. If she was by herself and wanted to do that, it would be one thing, but when we’re together, the fact that we’ve got plans has to be a factor in how long conversations with strangers run. And I think that’s the part of it that bothers me. Prioritizing the stranger’s needs to such an extent gets a little offensive, to me.


* RBF = Resting B**** Face


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