Almost exactly 16 years ago, I visited Columbus on a job interview. I’d grown up across the river in Chambers County, so I already had the idea this was a warm and friendly place.
My trip here did nothing to change that perception. People I passed on the sidewalk downtown greeted me heartily, and that was before downtown was the hopping place it is now.
My prospective co-workers were warm and friendly, and everybody I met in town was warm and friendly. Based on this experience, as well as the film I saw at the Columbus Museum showing people using mops to spread barbecue sauce on slabs of pork, I was sold.
I’m still sold on Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
But something happened recently to challenge my thinking.
I’d met a young woman who was just starting a half-year work fellowship here in town, with the option for full-time employment. She gushed about Columbus and how warm and friendly everybody was, and the great friends she was going to make.
Six months later, she decided to turn down the permanent job and move to California.
But, I asked, what about all the warm and friendly people? Well, as she saw the same people over and over again, she said, they were warm and friendly every time she saw them, but they didn’t seem to want to know her better, or for her to know them better. They were satisfied with recognizing her and making small talk and moving on.
“People in Columbus are friendly on the surface,” she said.
Since then, I’ve heard other newcomers say they had a tough time breaking in here and building relationships.
Making friends is work. I mean, you can’t be pals with everybody. For example, one Friday after a particularly long week I was standing in front of the beverage cooler at a gas station near my house.
I heard a voice say, “Coming up on your right.”
It was a burly fellow wearing flip-flops. I wondered why anybody would say that, and then I saw the pistol on his belt. If he’d startled me and I’d made a sudden move then perhaps he’d of had to shoot me.
We exchanged a bit of small talk – with me trying to act like I was not in a general state of alarm. He selected his beer, paid and went outside.
When I’d paid and gone outside, he was waiting for me. He asked if I would give him a ride home, and I just said no. I almost said, “Are you kidding me?”
I guess where I’m headed is this: we can’t connect with everybody and we can’t have deep conversations with everybody. And sometimes it’s not healthy.
But we do need to listen to fresh voices and allow ourselves to be challenged. We need to hear viewpoints about our community that we don’t share and have maybe never even considered.
And we have an opportunity next week to do this. On Tuesday, in an initiative called “On the Table,” people all over town are hosting mealtime conversations to discuss the issues we face in our community and how we can work together to make this a better place. It’s also a great way to meet new people and practice the art of deep conversation.
Numerous organizations around town are hosting public tables throughout the day on Tuesday and even providing meals. All you have to do is sign up and show up. To register, go to www.onthetablechatt.com. You can also call the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley at 706-718-9565.