For my entire career until two months ago, I worked in an office where I knew everyone and there were never more people in the office than I could count on my fingers. It has been a long time since I spent any significant amount of time in proximity to a large group of people whom I do not know very well, but see on a very regular basis. I encounter strangers all the time in public, but those encounters are a constant stream of new faces whom I likely will never see again. I think the last time I spent a large amount of time amongst a fairly static group of virtual strangers was in college. I had forgotten what that is like.
I am amazed at how much information I can draw about my coworkers while knowing next to nothing about them. The way they carry themselves and their mugs of coffee and stacks of papers; the way they peel their yogurt lids at their desks and talk to clients on the phone and pick misfed sheets of paper out of the copier all communicate so much information about who they are. In these chance and brief encounters, I already know who I would like and not like, who could be a friend, and to whom I should give a wide berth.
I have heard that the vast majority of communication is nonverbal, and believe that to be true. Yet it is a lesson that keeps repeating itself afresh, as if a new revelation. The last time I remember noticing the depth of nonverbal communication was when my children were babies and our bonds- some of the strongest I have ever forged- formed wordlessly. This new environment has given me a similar reminder of how much we learn of each other from the simplest of actions.
I treasure the experience of perceiving people wholly in this way. Because it happens wordlessly, it bypasses my rational faculties and taps into a heart-level understanding. It reminds me of getting up in the middle of the night in a strange place and using my hands to find my way to the bathroom in the dark: I have all the faculties needed to do it, but find it strange not to use the sense I normally employ for the task. Just as my body, robbed of its sight, finds a new way to navigate in the dark and thus comes to know the space in a new way, so my soul, in the absence of words, navigates this new world devoid of the conversations that normally narrate each human encounter, and in so doing finds a new way of knowing people. It makes me feel more whole.