March 25, 2011

Lessons from the Country - Part 1

Last week, I spent seven days near Clear Lake, CA. Now, I didn’t feel like a fish out of water – far from it. I grew up in Oklahoma so I felt right at home (though to be sure California country is a tad bit different from Oklahoma country). I soaked in the slow pace, enjoyed a day at the cabin doing nothing but reading and cozying up near the fireplace, and generally allowed my mind and body to relax.

I spent lots of time driving the winding country roads through little towns boasting populations of 60. I sat at the bar with the locals and chatted about the weather, their lives, Facebook (I know!!), and the general state of the world. I have to say, this was the highlight of the trip. The ease with which people strike up a conversation in these small towns struck a chord with me. I have this same natural inclination – one has to after years of watching her folks talk to just about anyone just about anywhere – but it’s definitely stifled in the city. Moreover, I know many of those in my circle, even minus the country upbringing, feel stifled in this same way. We walk around with our heads down, avoid eye contact, always leave a space between ourselves and the other person at the bar. It’s amazing that, with a multitude of opportunities to enjoy other people, city dwellers end up feeling the most disconnected and alone. What’s up with that!?

I noticed two things going on that I think partly explain why people in the country are able to share with such ease. First of all, there is less risk in the country because there is a greater likelihood that the person you cross paths with is actually someone you already know. They have a deeper sense of who it is they are engaging, so are not inhibited by the initial fear of the unknown. As I thought about this, though, I just had to laugh. Surely the city can’t be so teeming with undesirable people that we can’t even risk saying hi over a beer or smiling at a stranger as we walk down the street!

Secondly, people return to their same local bar all the time – I mean, they may only have three to choose from after all! In doing so, they see the same faces, get to know the bartender, and, most importantly, gain a sense of ownership of the place. It becomes a bit like home, so, of course, when someone comes to your home, you don’t ignore them! You welcome them, find out what they’d like to have, and learn about who they are.

In the city, we have hundreds of bars from which to choose (this has its own richness and benefits – definitely not trying to completely bash the city here). I’ve mentioned before how sometimes having too many choices actually leaves you worse off than only having a few in being able to connect and build friendships. I think what happens in this instance is that people lack a sense of belonging, ownership and the resulting ease and so become stifled and closed off, because they never go to the same place more than a few times. They have no “home base” so to speak.

So, Lesson #1: Create a home base, take the risk and start a conversation, and smile at strangers

Now, your home base doesn’t have to be a bar, but it should be a place you can easily get to and that’s small enough that some of the same people might show up over and over again.

You can strike up a conversation anywhere – in the grocery line, at the bus stop – but definitely practice this at your home base often!

As to smiling at strangers – well, you can do that one anywhere!

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