You Never Know Who You’re Sitting Next To

by: Shannon McNay

A few years ago, I was sitting at my favorite coffee shop and noticed a woman that came in every morning. She wasn’t particularly friendly, but her dogs were very cute and sweet. She always looked a bit harried and disheveled, and I often found myself wondering what she did for a living.

That one day, after she left, the barista looked at me and said, “You’re a writer, right?” I told him I was, to which he replied, “You know that woman who was just here? She’s a bigwig at Elle Magazine.”


I was completely flabbergasted. Not only did it not occur to me that she could be someone influential in my field, it didn’t even occur to me that she could be influential at all. In short, I realized that I had been judging her by her appearance and I was completely wrong about who she was.

Funny how that happens.

I’d like to say that I was young and a jerk and that I’ve never done anything like that again. But I would be lying. And you would be lying too if you think you wouldn’t pass the same judgement. The fact is, we are hardwired to size up the people around us. It’s an ancient survival instinct that’s never gone away. Only instead of observing someone’s physical ability to pose a threat to our tribe, we now judge by someone’s hair, clothes, shoes. We all do it.

There’s nothing I would have changed about that day. The fact is, I don’t regret the way I acted around her. I always smiled when I saw her – just like I do with everyone – and she rarely smiled back. When her dogs came up to me, I always pet them. I never spoke a bad word of her. I simply didn’t assume that I should think any more about her.

But what about situations when we might not be so friendly? Have you ever gone to a conference and stayed away from certain types of people because they didn’t look like they were successful enough to help you? Have you ever shied away from a conversation with someone at a coffee shop because they didn’t look like they’d have anything in common with you? Have you ever dismissed someone because their job or title seemed inconsequential to you?

It’s important to remember that we all have inner lives. We’re all more than our clothing, our outward appearance, our job titles. Let’s say you met me and said, “She’s just a writer and I have no use for that.” Well, I don’t only talk to writers. What if you were a designer and I happened to know people trying to hire a designer? I could then be very helpful to you.

Or let’s flip it – let’s say you’re an engineer and I think, “I don’t need to talk to an engineer right now.” Well, I’m also a freelance writer who works for startups. You could be an engineer that knows someone who needs content. In that case, I would do well to talk to you.

Just a few years after that incident, I was at another coffee shop when my husband pointed out an unassuming guy we didn’t notice before. We were walking out so I turned around and tried to figure out why my husband was so excited. The guy had on a t-shirt, he had a very bushy beard, and he was typing away on a laptop. We were in San Francisco so nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

It turned out that he was one of the most successful founders – and investors – from the past few years. He’s practically a startup celebrity. And, even though I knew what he looked like on the internet, I didn’t recognize him in person. Suddenly, my husband was wishing he’d struck up a conversation while we were sitting so close to him. He felt he missed an opportunity and that it’d be too awkward to say hi after the fact.

But he did it anyway.

They had a great conversation for a few minutes. It didn’t lead to anything career-wise, but my husband was thrilled to meet someone he looks up to. And, ultimately, he was glad he spoke to him.

The point is, you never know who you might be sitting next to. Ignore that first instinct we all have to judge someone by their appearance or their title. Talk to everyone. Be nice to everyone. Be helpful to the people you meet. It could lead to nothing or it could lead to everything. But you definitely won’t miss an opportunity.

Plus, it’s just the nicer human thing to do. 🙂

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