A handsome Asian man pushed an oversized cardboard box on wheels into the elevator and squeezed in behind it on the side opposite myself. There was a moment — as he came in — when we looked at each other. Then he looked down at the empty box as if to make sure it didn’t roll through the floor and I stared at the steel panel in front of me and wondered if I should check my cell phone for text messages that weren’t there or check my email on the Wi-Fi I didn’t have.
I would have done both — and haven’t we all? — but I decided to fight the impulse and look for something to start a friendly little conversation.
“Ah, you’re just moving in,” I said, with a nod at the empty box. It was lame, of course, but he smiled back and agreed. We exchanged a few words of polite chit-chat about his last-minute move, and he got off the elevator — I can’t remember which floor.
I would not recognize him if I saw him again. There was no networking value to the interaction, and nobody was trying to build a friendship.
But we’d had a warm and human exchange, and I was able to dispel the icky feeling I get when I’m one of two people in an elevator studiously trying to ignore the other.
Now, if you actually do have a text message to send to a friend or an email to scan on your way to class, I’m not saying it’s wrong to use your elevator time to complete the task. I’ve done it myself during wildly busy weeks without regret. And I’m not suggesting that we start bothering people who are, themselves, trying to seize spare moments.
I’m writing about something different, here. There is no time lost when you say “hello” to your neighbor in the elevator. There is no time lost to a smile or a nod when you pass a distant acquaintance on the way to class. It costs very little — if you have arrived early anyway — to chat with the person next to you before lecture.
And yet I’ve found myself avoiding all three of these things — and seen or heard of others doing the same — even before the semester hits that two-thirds-of-the-way-through point where the campus starts sleepwalking on cortisol.
We ignore each other for cultural reasons as often as practical ones. And while our fast-paced lives certainly influence culture, they do not preclude the possibility of choosing to face the world with a friendly eye and a ready smile. Thinking back through three years at Penn, much of my failure to be friendly was rooted in an irrational fear that the other person wouldn’t smile back. It wasn’t really that I was too busy to say hello, it was just that I was afraid to — afraid of it being awkward somehow.
And, of course, sometimes it was. But over time I learned that most people, like the young man I met in the elevator, are ready to be every bit as friendly as you are. All that’s necessary to start changing culture is for somebody to break the ice.
There’s an oft-quoted story about a lonely man who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1970s. He left a note on his bureau that said, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
Apparently, nobody smiled.
Was this literally responsible for the man’s choice to jump? Of course not. But the story makes memorable the truth that even the most uncostly kindness can mean a great deal if it’s given for free.
Most of us are at Penn largely because we embraced the struggle to do more and do better than everybody else. Our “competitive, achievement-oriented culture” is not likely to change and neither are our 70-hour work weeks. But while we work that part-time job, study late to beat the curve and juggle three extracurriculars on the side, it’s worthwhile remembering to be friendly whenever possible. Even if that means — as it has for me once or twice — just giving a neighbor a tired “that time of the semester” smile in the elevator.
JEREMIAH KEENAN is a College senior from China, studying mathematics and classical studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Keen on the Truth” usually appears every other Thursday.
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