Moving to a big city has recently led me to contemplate social boundaries and their effects on connection.
There are moments I wish they were more clearly established: like on the train, when I’m sitting between a man whose hands and face are covered in cheesy Pringles as he licks the powder out of the tube (gag!) and a woman who is coughing up a lung and spitting it into a napkin (seriously, help!). But most times, I find myself wishing we would push through them to acknowledge one another in our human experience and create space for meaningful connection.
I wish we had the audacity to “interrupt” each other more often.
It’s truly amazing how the seemingly invisible walls we put up so no one invades our “privacy” keep us from rich connections with new people. Funny enough, the walls aren’t actually invisible at all. We’ve all seen them at our local coffee spots: Head down. RWF (Resting Witch Face) game strong. Eyes trained on the screen. Screen brightness turned way down. Both earbuds in. Spotify “Deep Focus” playlist drowning out the sound of everything else happening in the room. And very clear “I’m busy; don’t talk to me,” vibes radiating off the body.
Are you guilty of it? I know I am. Intentionally shutting the world out makes me feel in control and ensures that the $5 I just spent on a pour over will double in value with productivity. But then I take the train home and wonder why I felt so lonely all day. It was predictable. It was productive. It was uneventful. It was uninterrupted. It is exactly what I planned for it to be and yet not at all what I needed.
See, I think what makes a day feel full and valuable is connection with another human being. As humans, we are wired for it. We are built to engage others. When we disconnect, we are starving ourselves of something we desperately need, something that was meant to fill our souls — to a degree.
Someone once told me:
“There is nothing more important than the person sitting right in front of you.”
That thought has stuck with me ever since. If there is any way I can engage the person in front of me in a way that communicates they are seen and known, then that is where I want and need to invest my energy.
People matter so much more than that proposal I need to write, or the budget I need to create. I wish I could say I do this really well all the time — but I don’t. I’ve let so many other priorities get in the way of connection.
We cross paths with hundreds of people as we move through our day. That means we are given hundreds of opportunities to impact the people around us. Now, I know it’s not realistic to engage or help every single one. But simply making eye contact and smiling — acknowledging another person — is enough. And yet so often, I avoid eye contact, keep my head down and make a beeline from point A to point B so I can sit down and take care of the things on my to-do list. It’s sad to think of the opportunities that mentality has cost me.
So, yesterday, as I sat at the head of an old wooden ping pong table in my favorite coffee shop in the West Loop, letting off those palpable vibes, I caught myself. I looked up and looked around. There were so many interesting people sitting around me. I made awkward eye contact with the well-dressed businessman at the other end of the table and quickly retreated to my walls and the safety of my screen. But then, a few minutes later, I forced myself to look up again and take my earbuds out. I looked at the guy who was sitting down next to me and smiled. He smiled back. That gave me the courage to interrupt: “That smells really good! Is it chai?”
“It is; it tastes good too! What book is that you’re reading?” He pointed at my copy of Made to Stick. He engaged the space that my interruption created and that launched us into a 45-minute conversation about creativity, stories, philosophy of work, impacting people, learning, coffee, places we’ve been, etc. Looking up and interrupting another person’s privacy led to connection.
Someone else came and was looking for a seat as I was packing up to leave, so I interrupted him too. In this new frame of mind I offered him my chair, asked him how his day was going and actually listened to hear his full answer.
As I was walking to the train I looked up from the ground and saw an old woman shuffling home from the grocery store with a full canvas bag in each hand. I interrupted and asked if she needed help carrying them. She said no, but then started talking about her love for Whole Foods pre-made meals and I got a small glimpse into her life and was able to share a sliver of mine. Every interruption created space for the other person to step into and engage at the level they desired.
I think we all crave connection.
We want to be seen and known. We want to be acknowledged — some days more than others. Sometimes all we need is a sliver of connection. It is a gift that all of us have the power to give. And we can start giving by simply having the audacity to interrupt.
So, create space for connection. Look up. Smile. Engage. Let down your own walls down and kindly but unashamedly begin removing bricks from the walls of others.
Chances are they want to be interrupted.