Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Comfort of Familiarity

"What a small world!" This is what we often exclaim when we unexpectedly bump into someone we know in a place that we were expecting less than the bumping into, itself. But do you notice how exceedingly happy we act during these chance encounters? As if there's not one person in the world we'd rather have run into? And, at least most of the times that I experience this, the funniest part is the person is someone whom, had I seen him or her in the setting I would have expected, would probably not even say hello.

That's not to say that some chance encounters can't truly be exciting, and merit the over-the-top hugs and increasing voice decibels we give them. It really just depends on the degree to which you know the person. When my three brothers and our parents and I went on a cruise to the Caribbean, we stopped in port for the day in Puerto Rico. Walking along the little streets of San Juan, suddenly I heard, "Michelle???" and when I glanced up, I saw a fellow Record editor, Jared. Jared and I spend probably about 40 hours a week together working on the newspaper, so this was a genuine surprise, and I was genuinely happy to see him in this completely random, completely not close to Williamstown, place.

But most of these interactions of which I speak don't happen quite like that. Sure, the hugs and the squeaking and then, in some cases, the lingering awkwardness afterward all happen, but most often we don't find ourselves bumping into friends. My entire summer is a good example of this. During the academic year, we have about 2,000 students on campus. While some would argue that at a school this small, you know everyone (and worse, everyone knows you), realistically I'd say I probably have spoken to maybe a quarter of people on campus, know by sight half, know of three quarters, and that there's maybe 500 people at this school who, were I to see their names on a list of some sort or see them in a crowd somewhere off campus, I would never know we went to school together. Out of all those people, perhaps 50-75 are the ones I would be genuinely happy to see in an unexpected place. This summer, we have 200 students on campus doing various jobs. Only a few of those would fall into the category of "genuinely happy to see." Yet when I've bumped into the other people here this summer at various places around town, such as the baseball stadium on Fourth of July, the coffeeshop on a weekday afternoon, or the movies on a Friday night, inevitably the same thing happens every time: their face lights up and they wave excitedly, and I instinctively do the same, and then they walk away and I'm left thinking, "I don't even know if I have ever been introduced to that person." No doubt they are thinking the same.

Why do we place so much value on seeing the familiar in the non-familiar? Seeing a Williams student while being out of session in Williamstown isn't a very good example, I'll admit, but I've had other experiences, including seeing someone I vaguely recognized from high school in London Heathrow (and a completely different person that I vaguely recognized from high school in Boston Logan, come to think of it).

Regardless, as a culture we seem to value these touchstones quite a bit. And it doesn't even have to happen with people, necessarily. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about her trip to Europe, and she said "Even though I don't normally eat fast food, I would be so excited to go to a McDonald's when we were there. It was just the perfect reminder of America." And I'm not holding myself above this standard, I can assure you. I can't even articulate how excited I was to discover a Coldstone Creamery (one of my most passionate loves) in Old San Juan, and even though we were toeing the line of being late getting back on the cruise ship, I dragged my dad over to treat him to his first taste of Coldstone, ironically out of the country.

In media, this situation is the quintessential meet cute. I don't remember exactly how many times Harry and Sally bump into one another in odd places (airports! the ultimate place for this occurence), but it happens
a lot. If only life had a script for every time this happened to us, and we could turn this strange situation into an opportunity for witty repartee, rather than the usual awkwardness.
This is most likely one of many-, I'm sure,-to-come "hot air" entries [no pun intended for the attached image, but that's a pretty great double pun] where I don't really have a solution to the issue or idea that I'm presenting, but it's still something to think about, and in my opinion thinking without arriving at a solution is far better than not thinking at all.

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