I glanced down at my hand cart. I had no business being in the express lane.
I entered the grocery store for a few essentials—fruit, milk and eggs. Now, laid upon the ground to temporarily give my arm a rest was the overflowing porous green plastic grocery basket: a testament to consumerism, spontaneous purchases and shoddy building practices.
Dairy free ice cream bars that were on sale sat vertically jammed against the side. Chip bags, (three for $8) sat stacked on top of each other. Oranges sat precariously over the edge, threatening to rip their flimsy plastic bag and release in all directions, in bouncing, rolling, joyful abandon. Two packages of soft tortilla wraps sat over the towering mound, like tarps tucking in an oversize load, attempting to contain this most undisciplined of shopping trips.
I conservatively had 20 to 30 items. I took a last longing look at the short, fast-moving lines of the express lane, and shuffled my way towards the regular tills, joining the outstretched snaking lines with everyone else.
I surveyed the lineups beside me, trying to size up whether I had made the right decision. Each que seemed equally long and painfully slow moving. Still, I had a phone with an internet connection, subscription to a music streaming service, multiple episodes of my favourite podcasts waiting and wireless earphones.
Even if I only had the last item, it might be enough. Sometimes I’ll put the headphones in, and never press play. A necessity in the Value Villages, Superstores and Costcos. I immediately appreciate the instant noise dampening and effective “Do Not Disturb” message they send to the outside world.
I removed the headphones as I approached the till and began loading items onto the black shiny conveyer belt.
I was watching the cashier’s animated conversation with the customer in front of me, but had heard none of it. She was a slight woman in her late 30s or early 40s. She had giant hooped earrings, bright pink lipstick, wide eyes and an easy smile.
I returned the smile, and the barrage started.
“How’s your day today, hun?” / “Up to anything interesting?” / “Me, I’m just working, as always! I probably work too much, but what else am I going to do!?”/ “Yeah, your kids are lucky with all these treats!” / “I don’t have kids myself”/ “No family for me... just two dogs!”/ “I always thought I’d be a mom, but I never really settled down” / “Never really found the right guy for me, you know?” / “I dated one guy for a couple of years, thought he might be the one, but we just wanted different things” / “Nobody's fault I guess, some things just aren’t meant to be” / “Still, you can’t help but wonder some days how life could be different”.
I stared at her, smiling uncertainly in our brief moment of silence.
“Will that be debit or credit?”
“Uhh... debit”. I focused on the pin pad, lost for words and reeling from the machine gun chatter and odd coupling of smalltalk and unexpected naked vulnerability.
I gathered my groceries into the available boxes, took my receipt, thanked my unnervingly honest cashier and walked out of the store to the parking lot.
I didn’t know what to make of the encounter, so I carried it with me for weeks. Maybe that cashier was particularly lonely. Maybe she just wasn’t comfortable with silence. Maybe there was very little filter between what was thought and then immediately spoken. I’ve been guilty of that. More than a few times.
But I’ve experienced this phenomenon a few times now. This isn’t the first time I’ve had an uncomfortably vulnerable conversation with a complete stranger. And I’m guessing you’ve experienced this as well.
Certainly if you spend any time online, you’ve doubtlessly run into a level of exposure and sharing that you may immediately feel uncomfortable with. Intimate secrets and deep traumas being broadcast as if over a megaphone. It certainly seems that a lot of us don’t know what to do with our vulnerability.
Vulnerability is a double edged sword. We need it, but we also need the right amount. Too little of it and there is no chance of connection. We can be left feeling alone and detached, even in a crowd of people. But too much vulnerability, vulnerability in the wrong setting, or vulnerability not safeguarded can leave us exposed or embarrassed. This is especially true when our conversational partner has no clue how to respond.
It’s not that I don’t want to have these types of conversations. My friends know how excited I get about a real, honest exchange. I can tolerate small talk at the grocery store or in brief interactions at work, but I despise when surface pleasantries and idle chatter dominate an evening with close friends.
A few years ago I decided to be more intentional about these conversations. We began inviting groups of family friends to dinner with the expressed intention of having an honest conversation around a given topic. We opened the evening with a big question: “What activity makes you most come alive?” or “What are you most excited or scared of for your kids?” or “Do you think you’ll stay in your current career, and why?” and even the simple and ambiguous “What comes next?”
What came next was, predictably, a lot of things. Heartfelt responses to these questions could be hopeful and inspiring, but they could also be loaded with (reasonable) apprehension or even dread. Those evenings drew us together, but they also showed their extreme fragility. If a person spoke over another, or too quickly dismissed an anxious fear, it created a tangible tension within the group, and that intimacy was immediately damaged.
I wanted conversations that promoted vulnerability, but I was woefully underprepared when I got it. Vulnerability is a hard thing to master in any setting, grocery store or living room, casual conversations or even close relationships.
Thankfully, we have many allies in this world. After a few brave, ignorant attempts at these big conversations I came across Priya Parker’s sublime book, The Art of Gathering.
Just as the title implies, Parker considers gathering an art, worthy of imagination, preparation, boundaries and safeguarding. I recommend this book constantly, for those who are passionate about gathering a group together, or even anyone who wants to have more meaningful conversations.
The boundaries and safeguarding were especially important. And unexpected. Setting group rules and norms at the beginning of a dinner party doesn’t sound very fun or spontaneous (and I still find them clunky and awkward), but they turned out to be absolutely necessary when we want to promote, protect and value vulnerability.
Our vulnerability is a personalized gift. Which of course means it’s not for everyone.
We might think that being vulnerable means being an open book, but there’s wisdom in only showing a paragraph or page at a time to a few trusted people.
Boundaries treat vulnerability with the respect it deserves. Good boundaries create safety, both in places and in people.
Because everyone should find a safe place to share their story.
Just maybe not in the supermarket.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.