We see each other in the distance, but we act like we don’t. We just keep walking, gradually approaching one another. After all, we don’t know each other. But it’s also true that we don’t not know each other entirely. We’ve done this before, every day for nearly the last week.
Twenty meters to go.
I betcha he’ll stop this time.
Ten meters to go.
I betcha he’s thinking the same thing.
“Gorgeous isn’t it?” he smiles, palms turned skyward.
“Perfect!” I reply, joining him in smiling at the heavens.
We’re at a campground outside Cavalaire Sur Mer on France’s Cotes d’ Azur. We’re talking about the weather. Ostensibly, at least.
In actuality we’re talking about a lot more than the weather. A seemingly trivial interaction like this might seem like small talk – and I wouldn’t deny that either – but peer beneath the surface, and it’s really about connection. Human connection.
Can I meet you? Can I connect with you?
Humans desire it. It’s written into our DNA. Evolutionarily speaking, being alone was dangerous, for the simple reason it increased our chances of dying and our DNA dying with us. Though modern comforts and technologies may have lulled us into believing we’ve shed our prehistoric pasts, the fact that computing these days proceeds in gigahertz has done nothing – and never will do anything – to alter the fact our genetic code evolved at a geologic pace, something we might dub geohertz. Our genetic code screams: seek connection.
Fortunately this scream gets filtered through personality (some people, like me believe it or not, are inherently more shy and reserved) and social etiquette, particularly at a campground (you probably wouldn’t want people constantly waving at you from across the valley, yelling “Hi! You want to connect?”).
But we do want to find common ground with our fellow man. And to do so, we must move up the ladder of abstraction until we find it.
When I see my wife, I can start at the lowest, most detailed level of abstraction: our children. I can ask her what she’s heard from our eighteen year-old son, who’s traveling through Vietnam by motorcycle right now. (Talk about ‘letting go.’ That will certainly be the theme of another blog.) Is he safe?
When I see my good friend Nic, I move up a notch on the abstraction ladder. I ask him about his preparations for his next bike trip, or how his work is going. To ask him if he’s heard from my son in Asia would be to start too low on the abstraction ladder. Nic and I don’t share my son; it’s not our common ground. What’s something one layer up that we share? Our passion for our work.
When I see my neighbor, I move up another notch. I can inquire about their vacation, what things were like in Switzerland, how the plants in the backyard held up during the hot weather. To ask him how his work is going would be to start too low; unless we gradually got into a deeper conversation, it would feel intrusive to him and invasive to me. We need a notch higher, something we share, like a similar backyard.
When I go to train at my running club, we talk about our training. I congratulate Quinn on his new PR, I ask Maarten what he’s training for next, and I ask JP how his calf muscle is recovering. To ask any of these guys how their plants in the backyard are doing would be weird. We don’t share that level of abstraction. Aim higher, at something we do.
So back at the campground, when the man I’ve passed for a week stops to chat, we’re not going to talk about our calf muscles, our backyards, how things are going at work, or our children in Asia. We need a level of abstraction we share, a platform we, as two human beings, can use as common ground.
That is why it’s sometimes important to talk about the weather. At the highest possible level of abstraction, meaning the sun and the wind and the rain and the elements, you know you’re talking about something shared. You know you can’t possibly be beginning too low on the abstraction scale. You have the common ground on which connection rests.
“Does a soul good, these blue skies,” says my campground acquaintance.
“This is what we came for!” I concur.
We smile and bid each other good evening, feeling just a bit more connected.
Douglas W. Ota
Doug Ota grew up between cultures. A Japanese father, an English mother, and their divisive divorce started Ota on a career wondering where he – and others – belong.
He studied philosophy at Princeton University, USA, and psychology at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. For many years, he was a counselor in international education. He now works in private practice with children and adolescents, individuals, couples, and families.
Doug consults with international organizations on how to build programs to address the challenges and opportunities of mobility (www.safepassage.nl). He is the author of Safe Passage: What Mobility Does to People and What International Schools Should Do About It.