When starting a conversation, it's much safer to talk about something else. Not you, not me, the third thing that's present, whatever that is. It's threatening to interact directly with someone in that context. Nobody wants to be on the spot.
Can you believe these bugs? Nice car, how do you like it? Pretty hot out today eh?
Dogs and babies in particular grant you admission to the club where you can talk with people without having to talk about them, or about yourself. It allows conversations and relationships to develop in a non-threatening way.
The direct approach would put someone on the spot, but what's more likely is that the conversation would just never start. No catalyst, no conversation. This concept may explain golf's popularity. There's always something new and safe to talk about. Nice drive.
It's a little weird to be standing in the front yard talking to passers by. If instead you've got an obvious reason to be there, like a garden that's being tended or a garage sale, it's suddenly ok, and people are willing to chat.
If you're out and have a dog, a baby, or something obviously noteworthy with you, strangers can ask you about it safely. No conversation starter, no conversation, no real community.
The spontaneous connections are important to building community. Making the leap from stranger to acquaintance makes a difference to the neighbourhood and can help smooth over other problems if there's a bit of a relationship first.
For example, your neighbours would be less likely to complain about your dog barking if you'd built up the relationship with conversation and maybe shared some home grown tomatoes.
These conversations that build community are impossible behind the wheel, and far more likely in the dog parks, pathways, and play structures where people have an excuse to linger.
The structure of the city tends to confine us to our cars, so that many of these natural conversations are stopped before they ever start.
Being conscious about these accidental, even trivial conversations and their role in building the community is how you build and maintain that friendly small town feel.
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