Could the Social-Distancing Era Make New Englanders More Friendly?

Isolating times has made me much chattier with strangers—and I'm not alone. Here's why that's a good thing.

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I know it’s not polite to talk with your mouth full. (I am a food editor, after all.) But lately, I find myself blabbing away even when I’m drowning in mouthwash.

During my first pandemic-era dentist’s appointment the other day, an overdue cleaning for chompers that have ground themselves to nubs during the last four anxiety-filled years, I realized I was choking back the urge to chat even when someone’s hands were shoved in my mouth, poking and scraping and polishing away. Small talk at all costs, my brain nudged me, beckoned by the now-rare pleasure of (very!) close personal interaction. That this was my first visit to a new dentist, uncharted human territory to explore, only made the allure of conversation feel that much more exotic. Crack a joke, urged the showman on my shoulder. Ask him if he’s got any pets. And how ’bout that COVID, ay? 

I could tell that so many months of limited socializing had given me a particularly acute case of Chatterbox. And this, in turn, got me wondering: Could the COVID-19 quarantine be the experience that finally makes New Englanders in general more—gasp!—approachable?

Under normal circumstances, after all, New Englanders are not exactly known for being outgoing. We’re more famed for our flinty reserve—bordering, if you’re not used to it, on aloofness. In fact, Massachusetts has a reputation for being one of the country’s least friendly states. Personally, I find that a dubious distinction. Look, New Englanders are a fine people, overall: We’re good, honest, and smart salt-of-the-earth folks who care for our neighbors and our country, and show it when it counts. (Politically, the biggest crack against us is that we’re “bleeding hearts,” which is basically conservative-speak for “too nice.”)

I’ll concede, though, that if you were raised on old-fashioned displays of Southern hospitality or Midwestern charm, you might find it jarring that New Englanders are a particularly transparent people; we have a hard time hiding that we’re generally disinterested in non-essential chitchat with strangers. We can also have a Fun Size chip on our shoulder, burying our softer, chummier side under a thick insulation of unflappable detachment—one that is very useful for surviving brutal winters, but less helpful when it comes to convincing outsiders (and each other!) that we’re not curmudgeons or snobs all the time.

It seems to me, though, that all our recent alone time is making us much gabbier when we finally get within earshot of another person. I haven’t been the only one flapping my gums like they’re hummingbird wings: When dining out, I’ve had folks at neighboring patio tables strike up conversation with me on more than a couple occasions. (And you know what? Bring it on.) Professional email threads are more likely to go off-topic or evolve into humorous commiseration about the state of the union. Plus, as small businesses work their asses off to keep their doors open, I often feel like customer service is friendlier in Boston than ever in my lifetime. Yes, really! For all the screaming and yelling and general nastiness we’ve had to listen to throughout 2020, and even when we’re all exhausted and stressed out from working jobs and managing relationships during a pandemic and political maelstrom, we’ve still seen so many people showing their best side instead of their worst.

In trying to return the favor, I’ve found myself much more liberal with throwing out icebreakers since the March advent of the social-distancing epoch, and more prone to bantering with—well, just about everybody. The dentist, yes, but also the person packing up my restaurant takeout, or the voice on the other end of the phone when I’m double-checking business hours before I bother to wander out. Sometimes, these conversations start in order to ease COVID-time awkwardness: When I’m the only person browsing inside the lowered-capacity neighborhood gift shop, I’m more likely to fill the air by saying, “Love these hats!” to the desperately-bored-looking clerk. At other times, though, I simply find myself more in the mood for repartee, like a pent-up hoofer itching to hit the dance floor. (Remember dance floors?) When I traded in my clunker of a car last month, for example, I wound up yakking with the dealer for so long that we could have been mistaken for old beer buddies. (Remember bars?)

Random conversation, I would argue, is a way to break down all those old stereotypes of New Englanders as prickly or withdrawn, and build community bonds, however fleeting and temporary, during a period when we’re all literally (and in some cases, figuratively) far apart. Do you miss wisecracking around the water cooler in the work-from-home era? Replace it with random acts of congeniality all around! Wanting for intimacy while we’re encouraged to be remote? Seize even the most semi-social opportunity when it arises, and make a five-minute-friend from six feet away. In other words, for maybe the first time, we’re all simultaneously starving for human-to-humanness— so let’s go ham!

I suspect that the practice will serve us well, when this is all over. After all, one way or another, we’re going to need to come together again in more ways than one. And with that, I’ll shut up—at least, you know, until my root canal. Nice weather, isn’t it?