On Avoiding People in the Grocery Store

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I was generally on the fringe growing up, and that gave me a lot of time to observe. I was also a reader and loved to write, so I enjoyed watching. This meant that I knew people’s names, though they often did not know mine. I still tend to remember people’s names and conversations with them. If I see a name written, I can usually spell it correctly from then on. And faces stick with me.

In highschool, I channeled this into fearless friendliness. I went from being a shy avoider to participating fully, in part because our youth pastor remembered my name and shook my hand every week. I decided to be like that. I wanted everyone I met to feel valued. I stopped being quiet and started seeking out the people who were quiet. I struck up conversations with anyone and loved knowing so many people. It didn’t matter if the person didn’t remember me or didn’t want to continue the conversation. I still made the first move.

But over time, I think I just grew weary of it all. I was tired of saying “hi” to people who didn’t remember me. I gave the enthusiastic-though-unacknowledged wave far too often (why does it make me feel so awkward when someone doesn’t see me wave to them?!). I grew cynical about small talk and short conversations and just wanted to get through my errands as quickly as possible. I started treating other people more like mannequins, just a part of the landscape, acknowledged only if I bumped into them or they got into my way (yes, I do realize how awful this is).

I became the awkward one in the grocery store who struck up an animated conversation with my infant to avoid eye contact. My “hellos” became polite, noncommittal. I am a terrible avoider, but I still do it all the time. I live in fear of awkward encounters and feel it takes too much energy to make the first move.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really mind small talk. I like knowing people, and I like seeing them when I’m out and about. Why have I trained myself to be an avoider?

There’s this one woman who always greets me by name. She’s the mom of a family my sister babysat for, and I’ve had her kids in nursery. It’s still one of those situations where she could easily pretend to barely know me and look the other way, but she doesn’t. And it made me realize this: I need to be more like her.

I’m tired of being an avoider and pretending like I don’t know people. I’m tired of being scared of Awkward and holding back. I’m tired of being rude and selfish. I’ve committed to being friendlier.

I wish I had an amazing story about how this has changed my life–or someone else’s. But really, I’m just sharing it because my new commitment hasn’t killed me yet. It hasn’t drained me. Writing about it here gives me some accountability too, so I won’t go back to being the creepy avoider.

Recently, we walked over and introduced ourselves to new neighbors. I stop and converse with the dog-walkers who chat with my son. I’m not too afraid of being creepy to reference prior conversations and let people know I listened. I try to greet people by name when I see them or wave, even if there’s a good chance my wave will go unnoticed. It never hurts to be extra friendly, right?

I see this as part of my year of abundance. I am trying to live from fullness rather than emptiness. This means realizing I’m not always depleted. I’m not too tired to make small talk or acknowledge an aquaintance. It’s recognizing that I can give–even if it’s just a smile and a name and the confidence to make eye contact. Life is not about me, my tasks, and my comfort zone.

I can’t just grow tired–or too cynical–to participate in society. I need other people–even the small talk with a mom at the playground I may never see again. I need to step out of myself. As much as these things feel like they take all my initiative and energy, really they give back far more. People give back far more. People are generally far kinder and friendlier and more fascinating than I expect.

At the heart of it, I want people not just to feel important to me but to be important to me. Ultimately, I need their smiles and encouragement far more than they need mine.

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