An Epiphany at Home Depot

I was in Home Depot the other day and got to thinking about how our culture has changed. Specifically, how it has changed in terms of the way people interact with one another. Yes, it’s in vogue now to write articles and even books on whether technologies such as email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter have brought us together or moved us further apart, or some combination of the two; but that’s not what I’m doing right here. Personally, I am always a little irked when I hear that “social networking” technologies do not bring people closer together, but rather the opposite, and that they take pride of place among the modern innovations contributing to the assured decay of society as we know it. Such grand conclusions irk me because it is only through Facebook that I have reconnected with friends who were once a daily part of my life, with whom I had lost touch over the natural course of things. Texting allows me to communicate quickly in the midst of a busy day with those who are close to me. There are also various parts of my life that sometimes make it difficult to carve out a significant block of time for phone calls — not to mention the fact that I’ve never really been an enthusiastic phone person. Trying to have an in-the-moment conversation with someone without seeing any of their facial expressions can make for some really weird conversational dynamics.

But I digress. I was in Home Depot the other day with my small daughter, looking for “odorless mineral spirits.” (Yes, that’s its actual name.). Such mineral spirits were going to aid me in the vexing task of prepping our bathroom walls — long the sorry victims of decades-old wallpaper from a bygone era — for painting. I was on my way to the aisle when I passed a kindly gentleman in his senior years whose job it was to stand near the entrance and answer questions and direct people. Figuring that I knew where the mineral spirits were, I intended on giving him a polite nod and passing by. He, however, was enthralled by my (admittedly adorable) daughter and promptly engaged her in conversation. Having recently blossomed into a social butterfly, the likes of which my rather solitary nature has never managed to approach, she complied. The next thing I knew, I too was welcomed into the gentleman’s conversation, and what I thought would be a passing nod became a real interchange among strangers.

The gentleman informed me that his wife helped their local church set up for an annual flea market that was only a few weeks away, and I should remember to go, since I might find some little thing for my daughter. When he told me the name of the church and the town (which is next to the town in which that Home Depot resides), I replied that I in fact live in that town with the church, and it is right up the street from me. Delighted, he said that he lived in my town and even told me his name, street, and described the exterior of his house and the house next to it. In a very easy way, he extended his hand and asked what my family name was, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I shook his hand and told him. He said if I ever went by his street, stop in because the missus would love my daughter. Then he bade me goodbye and went to help someone else.

I was left with a very warm feeling and a bunch of thoughts about how our American society has changed. Or, if not all of America, at least certain areas and certainly Generation X and below. If that helper at Home Depot had been someone of my generation (I shall coyly state that I am somewhere just north of 30), there would surely have been no spontaneous engagement of my child in conversation — but there would not even have been an unsolicited engagement of me, a peer, in conversation. We would have politely let each other be and never discovered that we live in the same town. I would not have learned about the local flea market, and I certainly would not have been extended a hand, informed of a family name, street, house exterior, and asked for my family name; and never in this time-space continuum would I have received an invitation to stop in while passing by on that street.

Most importantly, that warm feeling, that feeling of someone wanting to talk to me, to be interested in me just because I happened to be in physical proximity, would never have been experienced. No casual friendly bond would have formed. An easy, pleasant experience between three human beings would not have come to pass.

This is not the fault of Facebook, email, or texting (probably). I honestly do not know what caused it. Do you? That’s not a rhetorical question: if anyone has ideas, feel free to post them. My best guess is the faster pace of daily life now, and who on Earth knows the ins and outs of how that process developed over the decades. Generations older than my own still experience this faster pace, but spent much of their lives and formative years in a culture that valued stopping to chat with someone you don’t know, going across the street to say hi to your neighbor without worrying that you would intrude, extending your hand and asking someone their family name and telling them your own and having it be the most natural thing in the world.

But in my broad geographical area, even members of older generations tend not to be as interested in conversation if they are working registers. Yet I experienced the opposite recently in New Hampshire. They still have “general stores” there, which have become an endangered species in Massachusetts except perhaps in the western part. At the general store (or even most stores), we experienced something unusual to us: the clerks actually wanted to talk to us beyond “Hi” and “Have a good day.” They would ask us genial, easygoing questions about how we were and how was our day, and if they didn’t have a big line, they’d unfailingly start with anecdotes about their own lives that seemed to dovetail with whatever we’d been talking about. And the conversations went from there. No hurry. No implications that you’re taking up their time and they’d rather not be talking to you.

Why is this still in New Hampshire, and undoubtedly in similar places? Is it the countryside? A slower pace? Fewer people? What is it, and why has it been lost in so many other places? We can’t blame email and Facebook for this; it is something else. I, for one, would be sorry indeed to see no more of that old-fashioned interaction.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010