I was in a doctor’s waiting room the other day, using it in a completely correct manner, because I was waiting. My wife was in for a routine check-up and I was passing the time reading my book in the, thankfully, silent room (no blaring CNN or Fox News or piped music, I’m glad to say). After a while, a sales rep for one of the pharmaceutical companies arrived, to speak to one of the doctors.. I was not trying to eavesdrop but in the silent room I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.
The rep started with “Hi, how’re you doin’?” to which the doctor replied “I’m getting there!” And for some reason they both followed this comment with hearty guffaws. Then the rep said “Well, that’s progress.” and they both laughed again.
Rep: Not even close. It’s Tuesday! (guffaws)
Doctor: God, not even halfway there! (chuckle chuckle)
Rep: Well, what’re ya gonna do? (ha ha ha)
Doctor: The weeks get slower and slower. (laughter)
Rep: Tell me about it. (almost falling about with laughter)
Then they got on to the actually reason for the visit, discussing drug supplies, ordering new batches and handing overt a few free samples.
I was interested how they had felt obliged to preface their business with that little bit of mindless small talk. They weren’t telling each other anything, and even though they had pretended to laugh at each other’s comments, there was nothing the remotest bit funny about what either of them had said. It was as though this bit of drivel was some sort of ritual that had to be gone through as they positioned themselves for the main business of the day, rather like a mating dance. Did they really need a buffer between meeting and doing business? Would the ordering and selling have gone any different if they had got straight down to it? I suspect not.
Then a few days later I was in my local Starbucks, and unusually there was a queue at the counter. As we were waiting to be served, the man ahead of me turned and asked me “Did you watch the Olympics yesterday?” I took this to be a reference to something or other happening somewhere in the vicinity of Vancouver and I answered truthfully “No, not really. I don’t like sports.” The odd thing was, he seemed unable to process this bit of information.
Me: No. Like I say, I don’t like sports.
Him: What about football? Who’s your team?
Me: Well, I don’t really have one. I don’t like sports.
Him: You been to a Gator game?
Me: No, I don’t like sports.
Him: You should go. They’re great.
By now he had reached the front of the queue and placed his order so our little chat ended. Once I had my coffee and was seated, I reflected for a moment no what had happened. Leaving aside the assumption that everyone lies sport, I wondered why that conversation had taken place. To be friendly? Yes, maybe, but we met briefly as total strangers and as total strangers we parted company. I think it was probably chat for its own sake. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so human society abhors silence.