Friday, February 6, 2009

manner time, or how moco made me socially stunted

I was at Park Potomac last week, a swank development in Potomac of $1-million-plus rowhouses done up to look like 19th-century brownstones, visiting the model house. While walking from the car, my friend and I are greeted by a woman shoveling snow off the sidewalk. Off the public sidewalk, not just her stoop. She had the whole outdoor-yuppie look, so I figured she wasn't a maintenance person. "How are you?" she asks. "You know, same as always," I say, offering my standard response. "Same as always?" she says, frowning. "Are you kidding? You live in the United States of America!"

I was kind of taken aback, because you look at these houses and think "people must walk around with sticks up their asses," and I was very, very wrong. How well do these local stereotypes hold up? From the Archives of Lost Posts comes this story from last August about polite people in a store where I used to work:

The store I work at just opened a new location in University Town Center, the new eating-and-entertainment wonderland in Hyattsville (at right). Over the past few weeks, I've been splitting my hours between it and my current store in Rockville, and I've noticed one big difference: people in Hyattsville are really, really nice.

I'm not sure what it is, but when customers come into my store, they're looking for a conversation. When I ask "How are you," they respond. They want to know my name, where I go to school, what I'm studying. "Architecture? That's wonderful," one woman told me. "You're going to go very far one day. You know, with Obama, they're gonna have to change the name of the 'White' House . . . but you don't seem like someone who'd want to live there, do you?"

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

A skater kid glares at me in Bethesda. (Probably doesn't help that I pointed a camera in his face.)

Or the woman who asked me, point blank: "Are you happy with who you are?" And I, in my hat and apron, have to reply, "Yeah, I guess so. I'm in school and all, keeping off the streets. It's good."

It's a huge difference from our store at Rockville Town Square, often packed on the weekends, and nary a place of goodwill. We get a lot of large families out on the town, multi-generational deals complete with patriarchs sporting country-club polos, trophy wives, and dour teenagers toting iPhones. "How are you?" I'll ask. "TWO SMALLS," the customer will reply, fingers tapping on the counter, eyes darting in all directions. "I'm fine, thank you," I follow up.

As a result, I don't know how to deal when people initiate conversation. I'm almost guaranteed a friendly "hello" and a smile if I'm walking in Downtown Silver Spring or now in Hyattsville, but you won't get so much as eye contact if you're in Rockville or Bethesda - and since I spend more and more of my time there, that's what I get used to.

A very friendly woman dancing on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

For example: I'm standing in line at Qdoba Mexican Grill in University Town Center, considering a quesadilla for dinner. No fan of beans, I ask the server to put peppers and onions on it instead when the guy in front of me offers some advice.

"I just wanna let you know, man, that you shouldn't get the peppers and onions," he says. "It makes it all greasy." I stared at him like he'd just come on to me (another situation in which I lose all ability to produce a response) and give a weak "Thanks, man," totally writing him off. And I do order the peppers and onions, which are in fact a greasy mess, but he's gone before I can say "Thanks, I shoulda listened."


Kim said...

Thanks for posting this - I absolutely love to hear stories about how strangers interact, and it's refreshing when it's a good story.

chippy said...

I too love this story.

Thanks Dan.

I always try and engange people in friendly conversation. This has become a game to me each morning while on the subway downtown.

Engaging in conversation, finding common ground and then discussing different opinions seems to become a lost art in the world where folk build boxes around them with ipods and blackberrys.

WashingtonGardener said...

I think this is one of those you- get-what-you-give, self-fulfilling things. You smile, people smile back. You enage, they engage back. Whether that is in CP, Bethesda, NE DC, or here in downtown SS -- at least in my experience.

When I see people walking around grimacing and frowning to themselves, I have to chuckle to myself and think -- because I know they are seeing a lot of frowns being thrown back at their sourpusses and must think the world is a very unfriendly, unwelcoming place. You reap what you sow.

Thomas Hardman said...

Dan, this is one of the things that haas always gotten to me, and to judge from a famous song by R,E.M., I am not the only person to notice this.

Even in Ocean City, people from Rockville are dissed as "Rockvillains". Why? Because their standoffishness and outright unfriendliness are notable and notorious.

The way I heard it from a lot of folks in O.C. was "you're different, most of the folks I ever met from Rockville, the only time they ever acted friendly was if they were tryin' to take you for bad", translating more or less to "when Rockvillains start smiling, expect a knife in your back". That the Rockvillains seem to all expect this of each other, doesn't do anything to make any of them any more friendly, or less suspicious of anyone who is friendly.

And of course, once you get used to this, it's really easy to be suspicious of people being friendly, no matter that you're someplace now where friendly people are actually being friendly.

Potomac Secret Agent said...

Dan, We all need someone to scold us once in a while. All of us are guilty of keeping to ourselves, walking straight ahead, no eye contact behavior. It is fabulous when someone can make us "re-think" our public posture.

All of us should watch the movie "PAY IT FORWARD" to keep our society sane.

Thomas Hardman said...

Potomac Secret Agent:

Dan should, as soon as he has some time and is old enough, go hang out downtown.

In particular, he should go to some of the bar districts known for being "where the locals go". He will probably be pleasantly surprised to discover what I discovered long ago: It's not the actual Washingtonians that give DC a reputation for coldness, at least not in most part of NorthWest and even in a lot of places in NE and SE DC once you've been introduced as someone who is "all right". For much of NorthWest, you don't even need that introduction although it's always helpful to be known and to be known as someone who "ain't nobody's problem".

These people are friendly or at least they conform to the dictum of "no proper Washingtonian is ever unintentionally> rude".

There will be folks that one would run into who will stoneface you and when you walk off you'll hear them say "that fool will just talk to any body that he don't even know" but my experience is that those people come in from the Prince George's County low-rent district or some such place. They're generally speaking kind of unusual.

The thing is, I am one of those fools that will just walk up to people and start talking to them, and now and then this works for me. The problem I have up here around Rockville/Aspen Hill is that a lot of folks seem to think that talking to people you don't know is the signal indicator of mental illness, I guess. Of course, I hold the opinion that thinking that being friendly is a sign of insanity is an opinion that could only be held by blatant paranoids or foul sociopaths.

Maybe if we really want "A Change" we should all try to be as open and friendly as possible, and not think that being approachable is weakness, or that anyone who is approachable or seeks unstructured social contacts is somehow demented.

Look, almost anyone who has known me can tell you if you ask, that they probably haven't seen all too many people who get along as well as I do with dogs and cats. (Parrots, not so much.) To make a long story short, I was raised by household pets; I was a latchkey kid and either my parents weren't around or didn't much want company. So a lot of my manners, as it were, are those of a dog or cat.

Most dogs or cats are a bit shy of strangers but they will at least come check you out. If you turn out okay, the next thing you know, you've got a cat on your lap and the dog is offering you their favorite ball or chew toy; you don't even have to feed them, you just have to be not mean to them.

Most people are a bit like cats or dogs, in this way; you just have to be not mean to them and everyone will get along just fine.

But a lot of these folks from up around Rockville, they're like jealous dogs that growl when people look at their chew toy, and if you try to play ball with them, next thing you know, you're missing a finger or have a poodle gnawing on your ankle. Some of 'em are like fraidy-cats, you try to get near 'em and they get all fluffed up and start growling and yowling and making demonic noises in between spitting and hissing. A typical Rockvillain of this kind may be seen here.

Generally speaking, this is not a sign of being well-balanced. This typical Rockvillain is upset by the fact that dogs and cats clearly signal to each other that they have no hostile intentions by the so-called "long blink", sometimes accompanied by a yawn and if you're really non-threatening, a blatant and shameless exposing of the soft white underbelly. This cat is outraged because the camera clearly has an eye, and refuses to blink at all, much less to long-blink. This is interpreted by the cat as clear hostile intent and stalking behavior. The only way it could be worse for the cat would be if the camera had teeth and was showing all of them.

Comparably, here we have a small child being politely instructed that it is not polite to stare. Yet this cat at least doesn't pick up the cellphone and tell all of its friends to tell all of its friends to come on over and take care of this nosy individual.

No, most people in most places are more like friendly dogs that will check you out to see if maybe everyone can have fun. Rockvillains and certain other folks are rather more like you see in this video, where the doberman gets nothing but a claw in the nose for trying to make friends.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

The difference is that in Silver Spring, Wheaton, Hyattsville, or Oxon Hill (where I grew up), you are a local. No pretentions or delusions, just nice people who live near one another. Why not be friendly to each other?