For most of us, positive verbal engagement with strangers requires a tiny bit of effort. We have a tendency to run through life at our own cadence, preferring not have that rhythm interrupted by a stranger, unless it’s convenient or for good cause.
Periodically engaging with our fellow humans, for no good reason and without an agenda — what a concept. It might be engaging with the person next to you on the plane, in line at the grocery store, or waiting in a coffee shop, but engaging is an activity many don’t partake in as much as we could.
The other morning I stopped into a coffee shop, L’amore, in Chiang Mai on my way to rent a bicycle for the day. The coffee seemed to take forever and the place was not busy. A mate or bloke, another customer who was seated inside, casually walked out to the terrace where I was patiently waiting and told me he was in the same boat, and that he too didn’t understand why it took so long, but that the coffee was good. He made the effort to actively engage. I had asked for coffee to go, but ended up staying for an engaging conversation with Dr. John, who has been splitting his time about 50/50 for the last 15 years between his home in Australia, where he runs a business, has a family and grandkids, and his newer home in Thailand, where he teaches English to masters students. We had a lively and delightful chat about english, geography, and human nature. John mentioned how lucky he was to have a wife and family who understood his deep desire to pursue his part-time career in another culture. It was a nugget of time I would not have had had Dr. John not made the engaging effort. Afterwards I was determined to improve my own capacity for initiating engagement.
I walked away thinking that if I had to rate myself as either being a good engager or a poor one, improvement was definitely in order. I engage more than many, but not as much as I could. Sure I engage once in a while, but my engaging receptors, vis-a-vis an appearance of aloofness, I’m sure dissuades possible or probable engagement stimulation from coming my way. I’m rolling over nuggets of richness buried right beneath the surface.
Dear Ole Mom was an expert engager. She stimulated conversation with strangers, and more often than not, made people think, or react, or take delightful pause. In some areas of the USA, people will walk past total strangers, smile, and say ‘hello.’ In other parts, and in other countries, that type of engagement is strange.
Engagements are not pursuits, rather morsels of enriching or nourishing thought food. Just like we eat throughout the day, so too does our mind respond well to consistent nourishment — which many times can come from some form of engagement.
I’m not talking about the “how do you get from here to there” type of engagement. If I was, I might wonder if I have a sign on my head “ask me for directions” as it seems everywhere and anywhere I am I get asked for directions.
At the busy Air Link rail station at Suvarnabhumi airport as I was returning to Bangkok from CM buying my train token, a traveler from Italy approached me asked whether I knew Bangkok well. “Somewhat,” I told him. He had three hours to kill before his next flight, he said, and wondered whether it was worth taking the train to the city to browse or have a drink before his flight. I told him yes there were plenty of places, but as I was next in line at the token machine, I cut short the engagement then took off to the train. Afterwards I was somewhat disappointed that I didn’t do a better engaging job. An example, I thought, of needed improvement. He was not asking for directions, but for a push or a suggestion. I could have been more receptive and felt like I let him, and myself, down. Life is way too short to pass up value nuggets. There were plenty of trains and I had no pressing commitments. My cadence was interrupted, but so what?
After all, it takes two to complete the engagement process. Engagement doesn’t always work like Albert’s theory of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” You throw stimulation out, sometimes it creates a reaction and other times it doesn’t.
I’ve known a person or two who over-engage, and for reasons beyond me, try to stimulate conversation with anyone crossing their path. It can be tedious, all the constant interruptions in our own flow. Engagement works when it’s balanced and natural and there is a wide swath of this middle ground.
Later in the day, I was meandering in a small alley between Soi 5 & 7 behind Sukhumvit Road and was stopped by a rich sounding music video of Eric Clapton playing on a large flat screen. It was an alley bar, so I stopped for a beer, fresh boiled nuts, and the music. A few stools over was a mature, conservatively dressed man, with his newspapers and briefcase, keeping to himself. After a few minutes or so, I thought of Dr. John’s engagement the day before, so I decided to get off my duff and do the same.
Professor John Q has lived in Thailand for 30 years. His prior home was rural somewhere in North Carolina. He has degrees in economics, statistics and engineering. By his own admission, he’s not a creative guy (although I don’t believe that for a minute), as he likes things measurable. After an early career in the Army with time spent in Vietnam during that war, he was a professor at the University of North Carolina teaching statistics and economics before deciding to sell everything and move to Thailand where he did contract work for the Embassy. Now, prof John Q teaches English to professional Thais as a way to support himself and stay active. As he was telling me about his Thai girlfriend of 12 years, where he’s lived in Thailand, and his Asia travels, I felt like a captor to rich morsels I would otherwise not tasted had I not engaged.
Later that evening, as I was eating dinner alone at a makeshift, roadside restaurant on Soi 11 of Sukhumvit, a woman joined my table (it’s normal to sit with someone at crowded places). We immediately struck up an engaging dialogue which made the time fly. Eva, from Holland, is returning home tonight where she helps maintain the communication systems for the National Police, and with her IT team, services control rooms for all the safety-related departments in the country. We shared bicycle stories (it’s hard to find a Dutch person who doesn’t own several bikes), and she gave me a valuable tip where I could find bicycle tours in Bangkok (founded by a dutchman).
Eva told me how she’s been wanting to begin writing, perhaps a blog, but has had difficulty getting started. We discussed cracking the fear nut and stretching the comfort zone which so often results in exposing those value nuggets right below the surface. We also grazed around this topic of engaging. I think we both walked away from our roadside meal richer than we were before we sat down.
Engagement is such a small thing. Some people are out there pushing creative limits with amazing accomplishments. It’s not much to throw out small positive engagement hooks once in a while — or to reciprocate. What is life if not a culmination of bits and pieces of (hopefully rich) experiences.
So thanks Dr. John, for reminding me that I don’t always need to be in my own head. Little did you know that your coffee shop engagement three mornings ago would have a domino effect. I’m going to try to throw out a little more stimulation, more often. And thanks for reminding me that when we are receptive to engagement we expose potential morsels of value.