Life

A Room Full of Silent Strangers

Gather a group of people who don’t know each other and aren’t likely to get to know each other, and you’ll find a room of silent strangers.

Recently I had a chance to visit some colleagues in the Charlotte area, and when I saw how expensive hotels in downtown Charlotte happened to be, I opted for a smaller, quieter bed and breakfast near the television station.

This particular one, the Morehead Inn, is located near the Bank of America (?) Stadium and a great view of the Charlotte skyline. The home was built in 1917, and though its rooms lack large big-screen televisions, the house is filled with antiques and the natural charm that comes with a home built in that era. I’ve always been fascinated with homes like this, so being able to sleep in one and explore its hallways and public rooms was a treat for me, anyway.

Breakfast at this bed and breakfast is served in a traditional dining room with one large, eight-seat dining room table in the middle of the room and two smaller two-person tables to the corners, presumably for couples on a romantic getaway.

When I came down the grand staircase and into the dining room, I saw a middle-aged man sitting at the last seat on one side of the long table, and an even older man sitting alone at one of the corner tables.

I assembled my plate and sat down in the next to the last seat at the opposite side of the dining room table. I spoke to the man at the corner table, since I passed next to him on the way to the food. His accent was clearly southern and he looked to be in his 60s.

The person with whom I shared the main table was Asian and appeared to be closer to my age. He didn’t speak, but he nodded with a smile when I said, “Good morning.”

After the older gentleman finished his dinner and left the room, it was the other man and I alone. He looked mostly at his iPhone, apparently catching up on notes or the morning’s news.

It occurred to me that he may not speak English well enough to be confident to engage in conversation.

But as we both ate our food, it dawned on me how typical this is these days: two people sitting alone in a room — sometimes it’s an elevator, sometimes it’s a waiting room — and the focus is shifted towards techy devices instead of fellow human beings right there near you.

When he finished his breakfast and was about to leave the room, he smiled and nodded again, and I wished him a good day. This strengthened my suspicion that there might be a language barrier at play in this specific case.

As I enjoy my Saturday coffee, I wonder how often we take the easy way out by saying nothing when we are just too afraid, for whatever reason, to say hello to our fellow silent strangers in the room.

1 Comment

  1. It is possible that it’s not always a language barrier; it could also be a cultural thing. In my own home country, people generally are reluctant to strike up a conversation with strangers. Our culture isn’t full of little courtesies which make this easier, such as the “hey how are ya” that doesn’t really expect a real answer. If you ask a stranger how they are doing, if they respond at all it will likely be accompanied by a quizzical look as they try to wrack their brain as to who you might be and from what context they should know you.

    I recently took part in a short course organised by a company focusing on helping people re-enter the workforce after a long period of unemployment. The last day of the course was also the first day of the course for those coming in for the next one. The “old group” and the new group were served lunch together. There were 10-12 of us in one dining room, seated at one long table. For ten or so straight minutes, all you could hear were the clanking of utensils and smacking of people eating – no one actually spoke. Coming from a culture like ours, it is difficult to branch out socially and “put yourself out there”, because you have learned growing up that to address someone without a good reason is considered somewhat offensive.

    Personally, I don’t generally speaking enjoy talking to strangers. I am not of a particularly sociable turn and spending a quarter of an hour on idle banter for no real reason is, more or less, a waste of my time. It’s not that I am not interested in people; I am simply not interested in trying to come up with interesting things to say about the weather or some sports team. If people want to talk to me about programming or zoology, that can be interesting to me. However, social media helps cut through the fat and get to the meat. Tags and shares help me find individuals with whom I share interests. I don’t mind getting to know them.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I am not sure this smartphone addiction many of us are in the grips of is necessary an entirely negative thing. For some of us, it opens up the world.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.