In my new-found quest for meaningful encounters, I recently witnessed a brief but powerful moment at my local post office. It was not even my moment, but I claimed it as a triumphant one for humanity. I do not even know what that really means, but it was a welcome break from the dull inaction of standing in a queue.
I was collecting a parcel at one of the two counters with tellers that were open. If I had the choice, I would not have wanted to be served by a particular teller with whom I got into a heated argument about her attitude the last time I was there. She always looks at me as if, in the next moment, she is going to spit.
At the other counter stood an old man holding a round plastic container with a supermarket chocolate cake inside. I wondered whether his intention was to post it. But instead he said earnestly: “I have come to apologise for my bad behaviour yesterday. You were doing your job. I was wrong and you were right. I am sorry.”
The woman behind the counter was shocked, but she was smiling at the same time. I caught a glimpse of a gold tooth glistening from behind the glass barrier as well as a glossy blink of tears in her eyes. For a few seconds everybody stopped to watch what would happen, until we caught ourselves and looked away self-consciously.
I turned to the teller in front of me and we were both beaming. I think we both wanted to forget about the last time. I certainly did. I suddenly wanted to be one with the spirit of what just happened: to forgive and forget the past.
It was as if the man with the chocolate cake was sent to sweeten the mood in the room, because soon after his speech people started talking to one another. I found myself chatting to the woman next to me about her driver’s licence picture, and a gardener behind me was joking with a young mother and her child. I was in Small Talk Central and it was nice.
Unfortunately, small talk makes up almost 40% of my encounters. I work in the fashion industry and attend many parties and events at which I see the same people time and again. The only changes to our encounters are new outfits and different shades of lipstick. We greet one another with dramatic hugs and kisses almost every week, yet we do not really know much about one another’s lives.
The difference between the two types of small talk is that the former was inspired by a strange but sincere yearning to bond with one another, because we were strangers with a common past and a common future.
It really felt like everybody in the post office that day wanted to fix this thing that used to keep us separate and broken. It takes effort, but the rewards are great.