Middle Seat

It turns out that your neighbor on the plane/bus/train (or the person sitting at the next table at the coffee shop) is a very, very chatty tourist. Do you try to switch seats, go for a non-committal brief small talk, or make this person your new best friend?

In a world of smartphones and tablets, it’s funny how interactions with people on public transportation or in coffee shops seem so alien. God, I sound so old. But, truth be told, I too am guilty of being socially awkward when it comes to talking to strangers. It’s possibly because I’m just generally socially awkward, but whatever.

I’d like to think that when I meet chatty tourists on buses, that I’m friendly and chatty myself, and that we have fascinating conversations about television shows and cooking. The reality is that I try to be chatty and friendly when I’m not busily checking my phone for nothing, but I end up stuttering a lot and eventually I run out of things to say. Ah, the joyful moments of awkward silence. Minutes, actually. I inherited my father’s gift for making lots and lots of small talk, but there’s only so many questions you can ask a total stranger without sounding creepy. Hence why it’s not called big talk. 

There was one time I had a very nice time on a bus going from my hometown to New York City. I was on my way back to school, and looking forward to a nice five-hour nap, when a chatty guy sits next to me. We make with the small talk, and before I know it, we’re sitting there talking about TV shows and other not-so-small-talk-things. Well done, Siena! When our conversation lulled to awkward pauses, we would play chess and checkers on his iPad (wait, technology can be used to interact with people in real life??). I beat him five times in a row at checkers, but I only would’ve felt bad about it if he hadn’t completely destroyed me in chess. I really never could play that game. And at the end of the bus ride, we parted ways and never saw each other again.

This sounds like the beginning of some fantastic romance film where the two lovers meet again by chance and pick up right where they started, but the truth is, I feel like I should be having these kinds of interactions with people all the time. Call me weird, but I believe it’s good to know you can hold a five-hour conversation with someone without feeling obligated to become instant best friends with them. You can learn things about the world, yourself, and chess every time you take a bus ride without the stress of catching up later on. There are only so many people in this world a person is capable of truly caring about (it’s a scientific fact), and without that obligation, I would feel better about striking up more conversations, small talk or not. 

There’s a spoken word video here where the poet talks about how people don’t interact with each other anymore because we rely too much on technology. It’s sort of the basis for this entire post, and I highly recommend you check it out. There’s a part where he’s talking about a man who was lost in the street, and could’ve asked a woman passing by for directions, but instead asked his phone. He could’ve taken a walk with that woman and fallen in love with her, changing both of their lives if it hadn’t been for technology. While I do depend on my smartphone for a lot, I also strongly believe in the value of interacting people in real life (ignore the fact that I am interacting with a lot of people via technology by writing this post).

So I guess what I have to say to all of you readers out there is that if you’re sitting next to a very chatty tourist on a plane, bus, train, subway, bar stool, etc., I don’t really care if you switch seats, make with the awkward small talk, or become best friends or lovers or whatever. As long as you don’t hide behind your phone and twitch your thumb across the screen in order to avoid conversation. And if you ever see me doing it, feel free to smack my phone right out of my hand (or something else along those lines; something less violent perhaps).


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