You know that moment in life when you step into an elevator with someone who you only kind of know as a passing acquaintance? Maybe they're someone who works on the same floor as you. Maybe they're someone who lives in the apartment three doors down from you. Anyway, you get what I mean. It's that person that you get into the elevator with and then have no idea what to say to them, yet feel compelled to have some kind of conversation. The usual bullshit topics like weather, nearby holidays, or whatever you might be carrying come up.
Them: Oh, just getting back from the grocery store?
You: Uh, yeah. You know ... finished off my cereal this morning.
Or whatever. They're painful conversations, all of them. Luckily they only last a few floors at most.
That is, unless you manage to find yourself in one of those conversations on the train. The two poor schmucks in front of me today on BART were both taking the train up to some sort of corporate event in the city. Unfortunately for them both, they managed to get into the same train car together and sit in adjacent seats.
Thus began the 40 minute version of that painful elevator conversation. I really felt bad for these two people. They clearly didn't know each other and had no business talking together for 40 minutes. And yet, they must have passed each other in the halls at work or been CC'ed on the same emails enough to feel obligated to talk to each other.
There was a lot of:
Guy: So ... (awkward pause) do you know who's going?
Lady: No. Not really. (awkward pause) Do you know if Shirley is going?
Guy: Oh .. jeez. No, I don't know.
Lady: Hm. (pause) I don't know Shirley, but I thought she might be there.
Christ, it was painful to listen to. There were a lot of tight-lipped smiles, a lot of fake laughs, and a few gems like this:
Guy: (after about 5 minutes of awkward silence) Heh. I meant to bring a paperback book to read on the train, but I forgot.
Lady: Oh, that's a shame. (5 more minutes of awkward silence)
They talked about the weather. They talked about their kids. They talked about what they're kids are doing now that there's nicer weather. It was agonizing to listen to. They were just trying so hard.
I honestly don't know if I would have done anything differently if I had been in the same situation. It certainly isn't socially acceptable to say "Hey, look. We don't know each other and it's clear we have no idea what to say to each other. Would you mind if I just sat here and played a cellphone game instead of pretending that I'm enjoying this uncomfortable moment we're having?"
Of course, it sure would make life easier if you could say that.