You’ve seen it if you ride public transportation, walk or ride a bike in a city, spend time in airports, or even drive a car for more than perhaps ten minutes at a time.
Faces, tipped downward toward glowing, palm-sized screens.
Eyes averted, intent on our own thoughts, entertainment, and digital conversations.
Avoiding other people.
We seek to multi-task or entertain ourselves in each otherwise-unoccupied moment. This pursuit creates a transparent barrier that at once softens the blow of the outside world and keeps it out of our tightly held bubble. For those of us who are innately introverted, it’s a safe space. We don’t “bother” each other when the signs are clear.
I’m most guilty of the eyes-averted approach. Walk to the office, through the grocery store, from one end of Target to the other without making meaningful eye contact with other commuters and shoppers. Make my way politely but anonymously.
But all rules fly out the window when I’m leashed to a small, friendly black dog.
While earbuds may be a universally acknowledged “do not disturb” sign, the smiling face of a 25-pound Lhasa Apso is, conversely, a universally accepted green light.
I live in a peaceful neighborhood of ranch-style homes and mature trees where children ride bikes all day in the summer, and at least three multi-generational families have purchased homes next door to one another. I passed the first six years in my home knowing the names of just two neighbors: those who lived immediately north and south of me. All others waved in that friendly, Midwestern way when they passed, but we all kept to ourselves.
I felt conspicuous and observed any time I was outside, living for the first time in a home where the next house was less than a quarter-mile away. Sensing a loss of privacy, I was wary and didn’t enjoy being in my own yard.
I adopted Mylee in early March of 2015. While I intended to have an active life with my new four-legged roommate, I did not realize that having her by my side would affect the way I interacted with animals of the two-legged variety.
Neighbors I’d only ever seen through car windows giving a casual wave now approached me on the street while Mylee and I were out walking, just to say hello and introduce themselves. The young mechanic who fixed up the neglected house behind mine came to the fence for the first time to ask, “Did you get a dog? What kind is it?” Several neighbors asked if I was new in the neighborhood and were shocked to learn I’d been here for six years. And this was all in the first ten days of my life with Mylee.
We started meeting other friendly dogs and their equally friendly owners. We learned their names and personalities, and when we weren’t out for a few days, they asked where we’d been. Mylee’s favorite is Max, a football-sized, perfectly groomed Shih Tzu whose ears fly as he runs to greet her. Max’s owner is a favorite of mine, too, a retired widow who dotes on Max and calls out a warm “Hi, Amanda! Hi, Mylee!” from her front porch whenever she sees us out.
Ironically and unexpectedly, by being more visible and known in the neighborhood, I felt safer and more at ease. My anonymity was only feeding my insecurity.
This weekend, I took her with me to Lowe’s*. Anonymity is impossible with a four-legged companion. As soon as the automatic doors slide open, we’re drawing attention. On this particular visit, we walked in alongside a family of four, and when the woman of the group realized Mylee was walking next to her, she couldn’t take her eyes off her. Her face lit up with joy, and it was only a few seconds before she asked if she could pet her, arm already outstretched. Neither she nor Mylee broke stride.
Kids reliably pointed and said, “Look! A dog!” Parents also initiate, drawing the kids’ attention to Mylee, offering a pleasant distraction from the otherwise-boring displays of kitchen faucets and PVC pipe.
We passed one man of retirement age a few times through the store, and it was on the third pass that he stopped to say hello. Mylee was sitting patiently while I contemplated Shop-Vacs, and when he approached to pat her, he started telling us about the 18-year-old “grandpa dog” he has at home.
Like me, this man may otherwise have completed his entire trip without making conversation with anyone. But when a friendly little dog steps toward you to get a closer sniff, transparent walls fall away.
I personally initiate more of these interactions, as well; it’s not one-sided. Mylee’s bouncy, outgoing demeanor makes me more outgoing, too. She will inevitably plop down in the middle of an aisle (but no one seems annoyed that she’s in their way), or she will sniff a pair of unsuspecting bare ankles, giving the person a surprising brush of whiskers and cold nose. Curiosity is the name of her game, so I can only laugh and apologize or comment on the situation as I move her out of the way.
Her joy rubs off on me. And she’s never afraid to break the ice and make a new friend.
Over the course of this next year, this Intrepid Introvert will be trying to embrace Mylee’s attitude and see where the adventure takes both of us. Together.
*Not all Lowe’s locations are dog-friendly, so check first before making a trip of your own.
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Copilot Mylee came along: +5