Generally people don’t talk on the train. If you see someone wearing headphones, take that as a blatant sign that they intend to be left alone. If I’m wearing headphones, and you talk to me, I will take one out to listen and respond, but I am not there for conversation. I’m there to get home, or get to work, depending on the direction of the train.
You can tell when someone wants to engage in conversation--they make an extra effort to make eye contact until you look up and you're trapped. They smile. You smile. Then it's too late to pretend it never happened. You have to interact now.
“What’s that book about?” said a smirking guy who happened to read the title of the book I was holding (“Naked," by David Sedaris--that was fun to explain.) Sometimes you get a smile, or a “Good morning” and that’s it. Or else the train operator will make a humorous announcement and for a moment, we all laugh, but seconds later we’re back to our papers, or iPods, or Blackberrys. Don’t lament the realization that people can ride in the same train and not have a meaningful bonding experience. Please. I have ridden with the same people for years and I don't speak to any of them or ask where they work or what their lunch sacks contain. They see me too, and no,they don't ask me anything either. Well most of the time they don't.
A few weeks after returning from maternity leave, I was waiting on the train platform and a guy approached me to ask how the baby was doing. That warmed my cold, cold heart just a fraction of a degree. We introduced ourselves and maintained a quasi friendship, but I assume he’s moved to a different route because I haven’t seen him in months. Maybe years. It was nice while it lasted, but I’m not striking up new conversations to fill the void. Tragic, I know but don't cry for me; I’ll be okay. Really.
Yesterday’s seatmate was a talker. I started writing a letter to my friend in my notebook, and he asks if I'm writing my memoirs or a manifesto. I pulled out my earbud and told him I'm writing a letter, and like the smart ass I am, I added "You know, people still write those."
Then (though I didn’t ask) he showed me his book and informed me that he was reading up on how to save money on mortgages. I faked a smile and said that was good to do. Then I popped the earbuds back into place and continued penning my manifesto.
The ride was uneventful until we approached the end of the line, when I put away my notebook and pulled out my iPhone. I was just getting into the 15 game when my seatmate says, "Are you still in school?"
I don’t know why he asked. I would like to think it’s because I possess the youthful glow of an undergrad but let's not kid ourselves. I said, "No. I'm done." (I realize that was a very final answer. The truth is, I don’t know if I’m done—maybe I’ll go back at some point, but when you know the guy next to you is a yackity mofo, you state the facts and hope they shut up.)
He didn’t shut up. Just as I lifted the earbud to my ear (which was the unspoken cue for him to end the conversation), seatmate says,
"So what do you do?"
"I'm a government contractor" (Yes, I know, this is as vague as it gets, but remember, “just the facts.” Then hope they shut up.)
"I'm a consultant" (Note: also vague. In fact, more vague than my response. Also note: I didn’t ask.)
Then he pulls out the business card. It’s a glossy thing, and kind of homemade looking--the card stock was flimsy and the print was crooked. At this point, I figured out that this was yet another Amway-Quixtar-like pyramid scheme (okay, okay, multi-level marketing "business").
I stuff my earbuds back into my bag because I know what follows a business card is a pitch, especially if the card is advertising a borderline pyramid scheme. I’m not at the point where I can totally ignore the person next to me when directly addressed, but I imagine attaining that skill is very freeing. Maybe one day I'll know that freedom. For now, I will pretend to listen, and I’ll nod periodically so you believe I’m listening.
The pitch went something like:
“I work for an energy company--utilities are being deregulated and now people can choose their utility company and …Dallas…opportunity…free trips…points…we’re different because…and not everyone does that…”
"...so there are a lot of opportunities out there, so if you or your husband..."
Me: (thinking) Whew, this isn’t a pick up; he mentioned my husband.
“The website is right there on the business card.” (points to the web address in case I couldn’t recognize it on my own)
Me: "Okay, I'll look into it."
Me: (thinking) Not.
Everyone in sales, pay close attention, I’m coming to the part where my seatmate failed as a salesperson. Ever notice how some people ask how you’re doing and after you provide your generic one sentence answer, they launch into a soliloquy? They didn't REALLY care how you were doing, they only asked get it out of the way so they can talk about themselves without seeming rude for not asking about you. People want to talk about themselves. The trick to sales is simple--you do just the opposite of what most people do. You get people to talk about themselves, and you listen. And act interested. Learn the names of the people they care about, listen to them tell you what they want to do when they grow up. People like talking about themselves and they like doing that with people who appear to care. Once you’re in good, you’re just an interviewer collecting the story and once you’re in really good, you become family. They forget it’s about business and boom, you're in like Flynn (who is that guy, anyway?). Beyond the school question, did this guy do any of that? Nope. He talked about himself.
Here's what I learned without even having to ask:
Seatmate was enlisted in the Air Force and then got commissioned through ROTC
He has a dual bachelor's degree
He has a triple master's degree (in aerospace engineering and two more things listed after I stopped listening)
In the middle of his monologue, seatmate turned to greet a random Asian man on the train. How he knew the right language or that the man would understand, I don’t know. But the man answered and the two chuckled. Then seatmate turned back and said:
“I’m also learning Chinese.”
Me (thinking) Am I supposed to applaud?
Other stuff I was told by seatmate without asking:
He owns a million dollar business
He has teenaged sons
At some point I mentioned that I had been in the Army. This was the guy’s chance to redeem himself as a salesperson and ask about ME. He didn’t. Which is actually okay; I was just testing him and he didn’t disappoint. I suppose he exhausted any more opportunities to tell me about himself because he finally fell silent.
Then he started talking to the Air Force sergeant to the left of me. The unsuspecting guy was reading something and all of a sudden he’s interrupted with:
(I don't know ANY non-commissioned officer outside of Beetle Bailey that wants to be addressed as "Sarge," and the fact that the man asking had served added insult to injury—he should have known better. Who does that?)
This pretend interest in “Sarge” turned out to be more opportunity for seatmate to brag. He started grilling this dude on his specialty and plans for life after retirement (strangely enough he didn’t produce a business card and sales pitch, though). Then seatmate took the opportunity to tell the sarge how he had ten of the ribbons that sarge was currently wearing. Then he asked sarge if he knew any languages. “No,” Sarge replied. Seatmate looked mildly disappointed. I half-expected him to brag about his skills in Chinese, but he didn’t go there. The conversation ended (thankfully) when seatmate explained to Sarge that he retired from the Air Force as a (wait for it) field grade officer.
Mind you, “Sarge” didn’t ask. No one asked. We just wanted to get off the train and go home.