Sunday, August 17, 2008

Please Share My Umbrella

Every weekday afternoon, I go up the hill to the corner to meet Laura’s school bus. This takes some doing, because I take Hank and the dog with me, and only the dog is on a leash. I enjoy this part of the day not just because we get to greet Laura and walk her home, but also because it is a chance to chat with my neighbors while we wait for the bus. We congregate on the corner, we stand and wait, and we disperse again with our kids. That is all. Yet it is possible to do it wrong. So since it's back-to-school time, I offer some thoughts on Bus Stop Etiquette:

It boils down to this: The bus stop is a social space. For a brief period in the morning and afternoon, an unremarkable corner in our neighborhood becomes a bus stop, which is a social space. Not in the way that a party is a social space, but when we are there, we are in society with others. We form a society of people who are waiting for their children. Accordingly, we are subject to conventions that govern our social behavior. The rules, happily, are not difficult to master—you don’t have to know which fork to use or how to introduce a bishop to an ambassador. The only rule is that you must acknowledge that this is a social experience, and engage, at least minimally, with your fellow bus stop attendees. A very little will suffice. Eye contact, a greeting, and you’re good. Chattiness and real warmth can come later—we have 180 days.

It seems silly to talk about this, because this is second nature to anyone who wasn’t raised in a barn. But it is in my nature to try to codify things that usually go unspoken, and it seems there are people who don’t know. If you sit on the curb fiddling with your cell phone, your back turned, and ignoring the group, I will judge you. I am sorry, because you are probably a really great person. But we are trying to have a community here. And we need you. “Geez Beck, lighten up,” you may say. Let people just do their thing once in a while!” There are plenty of places where you can act like no one else exists. Like while you’re shopping. But here at the bus stop, we have a lot in common. We live in the same place, and our kids go to the same school. That is huge, y’all. So make with the pleasantries.

Matt does the morning bus stop run, and he reports that the scene is slightly different. Fewer kids ride in the morning, so there are fewer adults about, and some of those are on their way to work. The increased bustle plus the early hour means that it’s a more businesslike affair, but some people try to avoid even the greatly reduced sociability of the morning bus stop. Matt says that one mom (who lives right beside us—more on her later) never makes eye contact with him or acknowledges the presence of other people at all. And one dad wouldn’t speak to him after an initial grunt, even when spoken to. After I interviewed Matt about his experiences and expectations of the morning bus stop scene, he invited me to spend a few days getting up at 6:30, in order to experience it firsthand. In the interest of this sociological study, I almost would. But instead I’ll take his word for it.

In the afternoon, the cast of characters includes my friend Normal Neighbor—I haven’t ever written about her, though I like her very much, because she’s nice and normal—whom I’ve been seeing at the bus stop for over two years now. Normal Neighbor and I are friends in 5-10 minute increments. We rarely spend more time than that together, even though her daughter often plays with Laura. Yet we transact a lot of business in that time—exchanging info about the kids, school, running our households, and various gossip (don’t make me defend gossip as a valid and indispensable cultural practice ‘cause I totally can). I am thankful for her and I look forward to our chats, and we help each other by picking up each other’s kids sometime.

Another member of our little society is the German au pair who lives with the family down the street. Actually, the family just got a new au pair, and we haven’t really talked very much yet. I thoroughly bonded with the old one, Steffi—she was totally a hausfrau in training and really embraced her role—but I am sure Fabienne will be interesting too, even if the dad of the family she works for thinks her facial piercing will make it “hard for her to fit in here.” (Dude, it’s not that big a deal.)

The point is that these few minutes at the bus stop are a great opportunity to exchange information or just build ties of civility with the people around us. Am I a freak here? What are your expectations for this social scene, if you have any, or do there seem to be different rules in your particular situation? If it takes a village, we’re the village, right? We don’t even have to like each other, but we have to be civil, in the fullest sense of the word. Okay, end of lecture. Now go forth and schmooze. Or just remark that, yes, it is still very hot out, but at least there is a nice breeze.


Hootie said...

Consider that, aside from the bus stop, modern folx don't get too many opportunities to practice these skills. Blame it on the cocoon of technology or whatever, but the apparent lack of a casual socializing skillset may no longer be an active rejection of others (I'm putting on my headphones because you've got nothing to say that I want to hear, old man!) Nowadays it might be the result of being so out of practice that it doesn't occur to someone to exchange pleasantries. HOWEVER, and this is important, we are still better than they are. PLUS, there is pleasure in forcing someone into conversation... similar to when you push someone who is hesitant about going down the waterslide. Because casual conversation with me IS a thrill ride, and you will end up needing to change out of those wet things.

Lorrie Veasey said...

I loved reading this post because here in New York City, a bus stop is just a place where people without homes sometimes sleep. I was instantly transported to your suburban world, and promptly declared if i could join you that i would probably show up many an afternoon with a pitcher of sangria and a plate of dogs in a blanket.

Becky said...

Sangria! Lorrie, you would be the Queen of the Bus Stop and my new BFF.

And Hoot, I do think some people are out of practice with the smalltalk, OR that they weren't raised/socialized properly to know when it's called for.

Amy said...

lol hootie, yes it's a thrill ride indeed! and i agree about people simply lacking the skills to make conversation sometimes.

lorrie, you would definitely be the star of the neighborhood, then! :)

loved this post, beck. what interests me about this dynamic is the boundaries that people set--i've noticed here as well. like, talking to you here is all well and good, but let's not get any ideas about, like, exchanging last names or anything! i see that at the park, at swimming lessons, wherever. being new here, i tend to try to build friendships with strangers--not stalking them or anything, just trying to make connections! ;) and i can tell when i have crossed the line!

Amy said...

ok beck i can tell we are related cause we posted that at the same time and said basically the same thing! "sisters, sisters..."

Lecia said...

My oldest goes to private school (youngest is still in preschool), so we don't do a bus stop (unfortunately! - I hate all the driving I do), but in general I am with you about people's lack of a sense of community and social grace. I had assumed it was regionally specific to Seattle; sad to hear it's countrywide.

Hootie said...

I was thinking more along the lines that CULTURALLY, we are out of practice with the small talk... which really translates to not teaching the next gen how to do it. And am I stretching here to suggest that there is a greater fear nowadays of saying the wrong thing? (Think political correctness...)

Here's a marginally related observation: the checkout girls (that's right, I said GIRLS) at the grocery store don't have anything to do between the time that you slide your debit card and the time they hand you a receipt. It's like standing in an elevator together, except you're facing one another. Then, when they hand you the receipt, a personality switch comes on and they send you on your way with appropriate pleasantries. Was it always this way? (Answer: no.)

I would love to do a montage of faces waiting for the receipt to print... both cashiers and customers. What's the wait time before the cashier comments about it taking a long time? Maybe we should work up a "Waiting for Godot" style standard dialogue for that situation.

"Take comfort in knowing that your receipt will be here shortly."
"The receipt is printing?"
"No. I'm sorry if I implied it."
"No apology necessary. Appreciated, surely, but unneeded."
"You need it?"
"If you don't need it, then you can go. But you really should take it."

Samuel Beckett morphing into Abbott and Costello, ladies and gentlemen.

Becky said...

LOL, "No I'm sorry if I implied it." Boy, one difference between Georgia and California is that the cashiers are MUCH friendlier, and they act sincere too. Californians don't, um, do customer service.

And in general I do think people are a little more attuned to the social niceties here. In Northern CA (which I bet was somewhat similar to Seattle in this way, Lecia) people had a certain coolness and reserve--maybe like the boundaries you describe, Amy. At my bus stop, it's more the exception than the rule that people don't make smalltalk--that's why it really struck me.

And yes, it's so so hard to be the ultimate arbiter of social correctness! I know you all know what I mean.

mynyw said...

Oh my goodness, loved this post! And the Godot thing from Hootie, a blast! I've been transplanted from NYC to the Southwest and am having a hard time with suburbanism. Just got a call from my nextdoor neighbor that we must schedule playdates... children cannot go back and forth between houses... funny thing that, his kid is over ALL the time demanding quite specific foot items (Capri sun, not apple juice, goldfish not cheezits...) but mine should have me schedule a playdate! Uggghhh even in anonymous NYC it wasn't this bad! But your blog post was a perfect antidote!

Becky said...

Mynyw, does my next-door neighbor live next to you too? That is hilarious--there are two little girls that always show up at our house STARVING, but then they reject anything they're offered. Or they spill what I give them. Sigh.

And the playdates. They do seem to require a great deal of logistical support! When I was a kid, playing didn't need a lot of planning on the part of adults. One mom I know will call to ask my daughter to come play, and then tell me everything they're going to do (pool, art, snack). I'm like, great, sounds like they'll be PLAYING. Happily there are a couple of kids in our section of the neighborhood who we have impromptu playtime with. Because, sheesh.

But good luck in your new suburban environs and please visit again!

Veronica said...

I have to add that I'm constantly taken aback by "polite comments" from cashiers and salespeople that come out of the blue, i.e. with no context of social politesse. Like, the salespeople who utterly ignore everyone except to shoot withering looks at the world in general and then suddenly see me, turn on a brightly fake smile, and screech "hi, how are you today?" My response is inevitably "what? who? me?" instead of a polite response, which I think I could muster if the greeting wasn't so weird. Is this because I live in California?

Becky said...

Veronica, in short, yes, I think it is because you live in California! Now, as you know, I love California and I love the people there. But there is some kind of customer service gene that is lacking.

And that's what I meant about the sincerity (or appearance of it) around here. It's not just that salespeople say the right things, 'cause as you point out, they do in CA too, it's that they somehow REALLY seem to care. Not like the south is Care-a-Lot, but still.

Jane said...

I enjoyed this post and while I do not have a bus stop-I am already in the classroom. I enjoy a bit of small talk. It's sorely lacking in LA. I think this same rule applies if we are both in the recycling room of the apartment together or waiting for an elevator for a longer than normal time. Tonight I was recycling and getting my mail and this guy asked me if I sorted. Of course! Then he smiled and said he sees a lot of people dumping...blah blah- small talk! It was nice. We got our mail and parted. Turns out he was from Canada blah, blah blah. Reminded me that I should make more of an effort to start the small talk too. It really is pleasant.