Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Talking to Strangers

I talk to strangers. I mean, I talk to everybody. I can basically strike up a conversation with anyone in the world; it's a skill I inherited from my mom. She is queen of the shmoozers, and it often nets her discounts from salespeople she chats up, in her true Southern Belle style.

With Small, strangers are a bit of a conundrum for me. She tends to cozy up to people really quickly, and obviously that makes me uncomfortable, but on the other hand, I want her to be politely friendly. After a stranger danger unit at school she became freakish for a little while, and we had to work on who is a stranger, who is not, and how to handle situations. At the zoo the other day, she walked up to my friend's husband, turned to me, and said "I've met him before, can I hold his hand?" This is the sort of thing that comes up.

Talking to someone you don't know is a weird experience, because you can basically say anything you want, but does that mean you should? Recently, I was in the checkout line, and the cashier was chatting me up. She said something about being married, I responded, and she suddenly got grim.

"I used to be married," she said, "until he left me. For another woman. After twenty-one years. I signed divorce papers on our twenty-first anniversary, and now I have to work here."

I had no response to that. Seriously. I had no idea what to say other than, "Oh, goodness, I'm sorry." But mainly, I just wanted to be done with the checking out, so I could leave. She wasn't done, though. She laughed at something one of the kids said, and I asked if she had kids. Once again, her answer was more than I bargained for.

"Yeah, I have kids. My youngest is dead, though. Drowned. Got hit in the head, fell off a boat. Was nineteen."

What is the appropriate response to such outpouring of personal tragedy, at the checkout  counter? I noticed she told me these things in a quiet voice, looking around herself nervously, so I can only assume that she's been reprimanded by management for oversharing. It certainly brings a dark tone to the transaction.

How about you? Do you talk to strangers? Are any topics off limits?

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