Familiar strangers

I can be pretty good at talking to strangers. I can get through a targeted and purposeful interaction by being my natural affect-less self. That rarely seems to bother people – at least not that I’ve noticed. I can pretty easily pass as being ‘just’ in a hurry or distracted, and the other person can handle that without being uncomfortable.

It becomes much more difficult when I’m interacting with someone who isn’t a complete stranger. I go to my local pharmacy about twice a month to collect prescriptions. There is one person who works there most of the time, who has come to recognise me. I was perfectly happy to keep our interaction the same as it’s always been: I give my name, they go and bring my prescription. But before long they learned my name and didn’t need to ask for it any more.

It’s only as I write this that I realise most other people in my position would have developed their relationship with the pharmacist more than I have. I have never spoken to the pharmacist about anything other than my prescriptions. Ever. Not about the weather, not about my day, or their day, or local news, or anything at all that’s not related to the specific reason I’m there. The idea has literally never occurred to me.

Why would I talk to them about anything else? It would just confuse me. It would distract from the purpose of that specific interaction (i.e. to get my prescription). But it would also blur the definitions of the relationship. A pharmacist is someone you talk to about prescriptions. A friend or family member is someone you talk to about the weather (or your day, or their day, or the news..). Why would I talk to the pharmacist about ‘friend-level’ subjects? Am I trying to become their friend? It’s not very likely.

It’s not that I don’t like the pharmacist – I really do! They bring my prescriptions, they’re always helpful if there’s been a mistake or delay, they never seem rushed or distracted. They have all the qualities of an excellent pharmacist. I just don’t seem to have the connection that some people have: “If you like a person -> expand the interaction”. That doesn’t make sense to me when the interaction is happening for a specific purpose. I’m never actually going to become friends with my pharmacist, so there’s nothing to be gained from expanding the interaction.

It seems like other people do gain something from interacting with strangers or people they only know in a certain context. And not just that, but it’s also an instinctive reaction. I frequently see family members interacting with strangers and acting ‘friendly’ without even seeming to notice – sometimes they even deny it when I point it out! It’s so automatic that they can barely conceive of the idea of not doing it, so they don’t realise they are actually ‘doing’ anything. They would only notice if they saw me interact with a familiar person like the pharmacist, and recognised that I was definitely not doing it.

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