I Wasted a Physicist's Time, What'd You Do this Weekend?


I have always believed myself to be full of interesting questions, ready to chew the fat at any social gathering. Life is too short for dull conversations or elevator small talk which is why I enjoy reading about diverse subjects so I’m never without a topic for discussion. (As a gift on my last birthday, I received a copy of Richard Dawkins’ Modern Science Writing, an anthology of essays on, among other subjects, biology and astrophysics). Armed with so many pearls of wisdom, I’m prepared for instance, to discuss the origins of the universe should I bump into an astrophysicist at a cocktail party. As a pompous know-it-all, I envision someone lighting up when I, random person at the party, not only have some knowledge of a specialty field of one sort or another, but am interested in having a conversation on gravitational lensing, or my incredulity of string theory.

Now, where this perspicacity comes up against a brick wall is in the world of customer service. In this instance, you may ask enough questions to be able to make recommendations to your customer but since time is money, save the meandering and instead, always be closing. Anyone who has worked in retail knows the art of deftly directing a conversation of seemingly banal niceties while masking the predator-prey dynamic that is the reality of commission. The irony, especially in luxury sales, is that both parties go about the dance of the transaction on the pretext of friendly conversation.

In this context, I'm the type to indulge in slivers of the larger conversations when the opportunity presents itself. But, for the most part, the situation usually calls for the “song and dance” to keep the customer entertained. As someone who worked in luxury retail for almost a decade, my only regret is the day I let the opportunity for the largest of conversations go by while I wasted time on the banal.

To set the scene, it was a luxury optical store which also offered eye exams on the premises. Facilitating a full day of scheduled clients was the most challenging dance of all to perform as it involved managing the traffic flow while still delivering that “this is not a transaction” feeling on every transaction. When the inevitable delay would occur, it called for every imaginable distraction to be employed to appease an impatient client (whose purchase that day could be twice your rent).

Loquacious as your humble narrator may be, even I would strain to feign enthusiasm about the weather, the interior decor, that lovely handbag, etc. In these moments I would beg for a writer or a physicist - anyone with something of substance to talk about - to be stuck in the appointment cue.

On one such occasion, an older gentleman, who had been booked for his appointment with the optometrist a half hour ago, waited patiently in front of me. I thought the name was familiar but didn’t recognize his face. He had grown weary of sitting on the couch in the shop, and thumbing through the aging and creased magazines. I’d tried to ply him with espresso and received a polite, “no, thank you...is it going to be much longer?” I’d tell him I’d check on the progress of the previous appointment then slink away to the back of the shop, out of sight, and pace up and down in a panic. I’d run the numbers in my head - we’re a full booking behind, that means the rest of the appointments are going to be an hour late by the time this older gentleman finally is admitted. Oh, and he is an older gentleman, that means he’ll need extra time with the doctor so we’re going to be even later…

Finally I’d emerged with a glass of water for the older man. “Any second now!” I clucked followed with nervous laughter. We circled back on the weather, then, probably for the third or fourth time, I gave him an unsolicited breakdown of the product recommendations we had made. He politely waited through the spiel, while I felt his eyes tracking a cold bead of fop sweat running down my forehead. Finally, I trailed off mid-sentence as I was completely out of all the “nothing” topics that make up small talk. I stared at him in silence with an empty, customer service smile on my face. He stared back in silence. Eternity passed.

At long last the door to the eye exam room opened and someone called “next!” I exhaled and with an expansive gesture ushered the kind, older fellow through for his now forty-five minute-delayed appointment. He shuffled past and offered me a pity-filled thank you, for my banal and strained attempt at small talk. “Yes, my vision is important for my work, I’m a scientist.”

Some evening not long afterward, I was thumbing through my Dawkins’ anthology and came across an excerpt written by a familiar sounding name. The chapter was from The Life of the Cosmos, written by Lee Smolin, the same theoretical physicist to whom I had tortured for an hour explaining the positive effects of sunlight on summer weekend plans while he patiently waited for an eye exam.

While no one can stand elevator small talk, it rarely pays to underestimate your audience. It is always worth it to take a shot at discussing what is of interest to you instead of getting mired in tedium. Assume other people know something you don’t or you may risk losing the chance to speak to someone who can teach you a thing or two about cooking, music, or the way the universe works.

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