They say that you cannot choose your family but you can choose your friends. I think of that often in social settings when I find myself thrown into the company of someone completely new. I’m hanging out again with my family at the US Open tennis in New York City. It’s a great event, and has an atmosphere quite different from other big sporting spectacles, part of which reflects a New York State of mind. This year, the searing heat has been brutal, and I’m glad that we arrived late in the day as the air was cooling fast.
In big crowds and at sporting events, unless you are lucky enough to get into some swish box suite, you have to rub up against whoever happens to have the seat next to you. Funnily, many times, those chance meetings develop into some kind of relationship. Take last year, for instance. When I arrived at the stadium, I met a sales person whose family was from Jamaica, and I picked up a trace of her accent, even though she had rarely been to the island, and even seemed to want to deny it. We talked about the then recent exploits of Usain Bolt, and her Jamaican-ness came out better. I moved on to watch a match on a field court, and found myself next to two Jamaican ladies on the bleachers. We cracked a joke about the chances of compatriots from that small island meeting like this, and that brought in two Americans who were on my other side, who asked if we were friends. We all laughed as we talked about our complete first meeting. I bumped into the three Jamaicans I met that day on several other occasions during the day. We never exchanged contact details, but we would remember each other. For sure, man.
My wife and I then met a man from Australia, who had been going to Grand SLams for some two decades. We were watching Roger Federer play in the Arthur Ashe stadium. We were none of us in our assigned seats, but had found a good shady section. We struck up a conversation about how the travelling to see these matches was an adventure itself. We hung together talking the rest of the afternoon. Later in the day, we met a man from Guadeloupe, who now lived in France, and tried to see all the Grand Slams. I mentioned that I had been to Paris the previous year to watch the Roland Garros tournament. We talked about tennis, and somehow he remembered that he had not informed his wife that all was going well. I asked if she had e-mail, and when he said she did, I offered to send a message using my Blackberry. His wife was surprised and called him on his cell phone to double-check. She then spent the next few days using me as a conduit to pass messages to her husband, whom I happened to bump into several times during the week. We’ve since kept in touch and made suggestions to visit France.
Yesterday, I arrived at Flushing late in the afternoon. I was tired and really just wanted to get into the atmosphere of the tournament, rather than go straight to watch a live match. I say a table with one man sitting and asked if I could share one of the other three seats. He gladly agreed. He left soon after. Then a lady came with her supper and asked if she could share the table. I readily agreed, but added that she would need to share her meal: she offered some of her kettle chips, which I declined with a smile. Minutes later, we were talking about the tennis and the atmosphere at Flushing, and the lady told me that she had been coming for the past 10 years. We were then joined by another man, who was ready to share his sandwich: we both declined. But, we got into an animated conversation about social dynamics as we watched people hover near tables already occupied but with empty seats. It was clear that people seemed ready to ask to join if there was only one person at a table (with, say, four chairs), perhaps assuming that any group of two or more represented a group of friends. It was a funny dance to watch, but was so interesting to note that once someone broke into a group they were soon in conversation.
It’s instructive to watch young children, who have fewer social hangups when they meet for the first time, even if they are initially a bit shy. They soon find a way into conversation or play and then become friends within minutes. I’m sure that psychologists have studied when and why we lose that easy association skill as we age. I remember my older daughter coming to my office once and asked when we went out for recess. She could not understand why so many people would be content to stay in their little offices, and not get out together and play. She was about six at the time. Sharing coffee and having lunch together, which is what working people often do, does not give that ready association that has a lot of give and take that comes from playing. I always wanted to run a company that had an approach to work that was like the way that children play–free association. It just seemed healthier than all the stratification that comes with most organizations. Maybe, I can think again about that now that I’ve retired. You should work better with people who you regard as friends rather than rivals, right? Message to Messrs Blair and Brown?