The Art of Human Interaction

Having reached the park a little bit later than usual last Saturday, the weekend brought to the park more runners, families, and walkers-with-dogs than usual. A gentle buzz of activity could be felt about the place.

Halfway into my ‘Headspace’ session, I received a pleasant interruption. There was a dog lingering there next to the bench close to me; he was closely followed by an elderly, but sprightly, man who explained that he (the dog) wanted me to throw the tennis ball that was at my feet. I hadn’t even noticed the noticed ball… A few throws later, and myself and Franco (the man) were pleasantly chatting away.

Initially, I had been tempted to kindly let him know that I was in the middle of my mindful meditation; I was almost even tempted to be slightly annoyed at the interruption.

But the moment took me and, taking a leaf from mindfulness, I ‘embraced the moment’. And I’m glad that I did. Conversation ensued and I learnt the following:

  • Franco was originally from Turino (Turin) in Italy, but had moved over to the UK with his brother, who had married an English lady, over forty years ago.
  • His dog, Cookie, was a mix between greyhound and collie, a variety I hadn’t seen before. He was lovely, and incredibly well-behaved; I learnt that the family had bought Cookie at just 7 weeks old, and he was now 8 years old.
  • Franco had two children, a son (43 years old) who had been born in Italy, and a younger daughter who had been born here in England.
  • Franco’s accent was unmistakably Italian, even after all of this time he had been in the UK.
  • Impressively, Cookie understood his owner’s instructions in both England and Italian – I witnessed the proof of this.

Despite lasting just 10-15 minutes (unfortunately I had to leave and go my own way) it had a powerful effect on me, not only at the time but in the hours that followed. Franco explained that him and Cookie were there most weekends, and so perhaps we would meet again. It struck me that part of the reason it had been so powerful, was that this didn’t tend to happen too often. Certainly in the city, where I used to spent a significant part of my day, these sorts of interactions just did not happen. 

And yet I had come to realise just the effect such a fleeting interaction with a stranger can have. So often, we’re so engrossed in our daily business, that we fail to notice what’s going on around us. The tragedy being, quite often we’re glued to our digital screens and devices, having spent most of the day doing just that whilst sat at the desk. A recent study by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) has found that 3 in 5 (63%) of employees now work whilst on their holidays – with a major reason for this likely to be modern technology, and the fact that workers are contactable anytime, anywhere, and the stream of email pop-up notifications is non-stop. This is also making us more stressed out and anxious, and leading to an endemic The Times has referred to as FOBO – Fear of Being Offline. Sad times indeed.

As a result, we’re missing out on real, human interactions that are passing us by every day, and are fundamentally good for us and our mental health. So often we pass someone, wherever we happen to be, and make a conscious effort to look away, or down, or ahead. It’s become normal not to even acknowledge one another, yet alone say hello or – even worse •gasp• – strike up a conversation…

As I walked away from Franco and Cookie, I found myself with a renewed energy and said just a quick “Good Morning” to those I went past, with a smile; on every occasion it was returned, and on almost all occasions with a smile. How difficult had that been?!

I realised that Bushy Park, where people were often enjoying a walk alone or together or with their dogs, was probably a good place to start, with people naturally in a relaxed frame of mind and at ease (in comparison to, say, the pavements of London’s Canary Wharf).

As human beings, we all need human interactions with one another. These days, even with our existing social circle, quite often the ‘conversation’ that takes place is through WhatsApp, social media. Next time – pick up the phone, physically speak to that person or, better yet, arrange to meet them, and soon.

These physical interactions feel good for us, and science shows that they are good for our brains and our mental health too.

So, I propose we all try a couple of things this weekend, and in the week ahead:

  1. Say hello/good morning/good afternoon to the next person you walk past; chances are, they’ll be glad you did. This will often be reciprocated and, if it feels right, ask them where they’re off to, how their day is going, etcetera. The opportunities are endless – when you are out doing the shopping, when you are walking to the gym, to the restaurant, wandering alone in the park (if you’ve not done this last one, I strongly suggest that you do), etcetera.

Tip: if walking alone, the chances are reasonably good that your headphones will be plugged in. Take them out – you’ll find it difficult communicating with them in, and people will naturally assume that you have no interest in talking to them.

  1. With your own friends, the next time you catch yourself on WhatsApp or Facebook – exchanging message after message after message, waiting for those ticks and double-ticks to appear – stop! Pick up the phone, and give them a call. This sounds so trivial, but see the difference it’ll make, for both of you.

It is my view that, collectively and on a larger scale, these conversations promote connection, trust, community and will defeat loneliness; the studies show that people are feeling more lonely than ever, despite their growing ‘Facebook friends’ and ‘Twitter followers’ – there is a reason for this.

Even if you manage just one conversation with a passer-by, and one phone-call with a friend, reflect on how it went and how you feel. Everyone wins here, not only you but the other person.

Notice the difference it makes. I guarantee it’ll be a positive one.

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