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Avoid eye contact to practice anti-social behavior

I was in the grocery store the other day when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Before I could turn around, I heard “I saw your buddy in Park Rapids the other day.” I turned around and there was a distinguished looking gentlemen in a very nice cowboy hat. His face was familiar, but I didn’t know him. “What buddy is that?” I asked (I have hundreds of buddies in Park Rapids). He took a good look at me and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re not who I thought you were. I apologize for wasting your time.” It’s true, he did waste my time — about 10 seconds.

He wasn’t carrying any groceries, so I have an idea he had an assistant just a few steps behind him telling him “Why are you going around talking to strangers and wasting their time and ours? Let’s pay for our groceries and get moving.”

The reason I can imagine that conversation is that the same thing happened to me not too long ago. Unfortunately, my assistant was right behind me and saw it happen. We were in that same grocery store and I saw this young woman I’d once had in a class. So I went over to say a friendly hello, and, on close inspection, she wasn’t who I thought she was. So I apologized for wasting all her time and followed the driver of our grocery cart.

As a result of that shocking and memorable experience, I now get advice when I go to the grocery store alone to pick up some quick supplies: “Avoid eye contact.” That’s right — don’t look anybody in the eye at the grocery store, or an unexpected “hello” might break out and precious time could be wasted. Worse than that, that can of corn we need will be cold before it gets home.

There have been times when I’ve been forced to talk to strangers in grocery stores to resolve confusion about sweet potatoes and yams or questions about the difference between stewed tomatoes and crushed tomatoes. Strangers can actually help one another in grocery stores.

Avoid eye contact. Can you believe that? I was taught to be friendly and neighborly, to look people in the eye and give them a firm handshake. Growing up in a small town and still living in a small town now, I was never advised not to talk to strangers. But even if I had been, how can you tell somebody’s a stranger if you don’t look at him or her?

There are lots of ways to avoid eye contact if we really need to practice anti-social behavior. In a grocery store, the simplest would simply be to keep staring at your grocery list. Or if you have one those “intelligent phones,” you fix your eyes on the phone and text friends to tell them you’re in the grocery store buying potatoes (I’m sure they really want to know that). Or play solitaire. But the risk of shopping in a grocery store with your head down is that you’ll run into a pyramid display of tomato soup, send the cans tolling in all directions, and be compelled to restack it. Trust me. That will take more than 10 seconds.

These experiences leave me not with remorse, for my errant ways, but with regret. I regret when I “wasted” 10 seconds talking to that young woman who wasn’t who I thought she was, that I didn’t spend another 50 seconds introducing myself, getting to know her name and becoming acquainted.

Likewise, I should’ve introduced myself to that well-meaning gentleman with the cowboy hat and spared him the utter humiliation of wasting 10 seconds of my precious time. Those little incidents aren’t interruptions, they’re opportunities.