If you’ve ever been in a men’s bathroom, you’ve observed how men behave around urinals. (And if you’re not a dude, what you doing in the men’s bathroom?)
In this setting, most men try to look super-heterosexual by standing as far apart from each other as possible. If there are more than two urinals, most men will stand at the urinal farthest from the other man or men as possible.
And if it’s not possible to stand apart, the whole affair is very awkward.
There’s the decision of whether to gruffly acknowledge each other’s presence with a manly grunt or a “hey man,” and then making a really big show out of looking anywhere except the other dude’s junk.
For some men, it’s probably more awkward still if another man starts talking to him as though the newcomer weren’t privy to the unspoken male rule that pissing a few inches away from a guy you don’t know has to be uncomfortable. It’s the law.
The urinal principle can be applied to daily life, too. At least in the United States, when people go into restaurants, they won’t share table with someone they don’t know unless they have to do it — in other words, if there are no other free tables.
Even when they know somebody, unless they’re old friends, they’ll just nod or say hi and pretend to be fascinated by the chance of meeting the other person there before wandering off and finding their own table comfortably out of the other person’s line of sight.
Or observe people passing on the street: Most people pass by their fellow humans as though they didn’t exist, only acknowledging them — you guessed it — if they’re forced to do so.
And even then, it’s accented by the weirdness one can often expect along a line of urinals. Maybe, on a good day, you might get a grunt and a half-hearted hand twitch that’s supposed to be a sort of wave.
The other day, I took the special needs gentleman I work with to a park to swing on the swings. There were four swings on this set, with one on the far left taken already by a boy we didn’t know.
Now I want you to imagine the typical urinal scene when I tell you the rest of this. I, being the wonderful and enlightened man I am, chose the swing two down from the kid I didn’t know so that I wouldn’t have to say anything to him. (Yeah, apparently I’m frightened of those menacing 6-year-olds.)
There was one swing open on either side of me, one on the opposite end from the other boy and one between him and me. I fully expected the young man I’m in charge of — we’ll call him Eric — to choose the swing on the far end.
Instead, Eric, being the indefatigably good-natured person that he is, chose the swing in between us and proceeded to engage the other boy with a cheerful hello before launching his legs forward and pumping until he reached altitude.
This should not have surprised me, because I know this guy very well. Often I’m the one cheerfully saying hello to people I don’t know.
Now, I could ask why he is so unconcerned by the usual social stick-up-the-ass behavior the rest of us have beaten into our subconscious, but I would already know the answer.
Eric is considered “special needs,” and has the mental capacity of a five-year-old. And yet, where the rest of the population is stunted, he truly shines by welcoming and befriending everyone he meets.
Just yesterday, we were back at the park, and I had to answer a quick phone call while we were walking around. Before I knew it, he had inserted himself into a game of basketball that some other kids were playing.
Did he know them? No, of course not. Does he know how to play basketball? Slightly better than the average overweight Star Trek nerd. But that didn’t stop him from happily engaging his fellow human beings in doing what made his heart happy in that moment.
Perhaps if we all stopped worrying about awkwardness, and who’s a stranger and who’s not, and whether the other guy is going to think you’re looking at his junk, this world would be a funner, more joyful place to live.