A piece of gum
When I was a kid, we used to fly back to Boston every summer to visit my grandparents. It was always one of my favorite things, flying. I loved the visits to the grandparents as well; they were beautiful people. I miss them both dearly. It was those visits that made me a natural flyer1.
These were the days when a flight from San Francisco to Boston was made on a wide-bodied jet. There would be two aisles and loads of space. I remember three seats by the window, four to five seats in the middle, and three more seats by the window. I could have these dimensions wrong, but that’s what my kiddo memory tells me. It was not unusual for us to have our own row as a family. This meant getting to lay down. I mean, like, lifting up armrests and taking up like three seats.
When was the last time you saw three seats in a row empty on an airplane?2
Not only was the plane giant and empty, but going to the cockpit was a thing. During flights. I would always ask for three things on a plane: a deck of cards (they’d give me one), pilots wings (they were pins, not those dumb and cheap stickers), and a trip to the cockpit to say hi to the pilot. They always took me. I don’t remember being able to see out the window. Nor do I remember being asked any inappropriate questions.
Flying was different then. Of course, so many things were. But I digress. This isn’t meant to be a ‘when I was a kid’ sort of piece.
Whenever we flew back east (or on the return flight), I would always carry with me a pack of gum. Gum is handy for relieving the pressure build-up in your ears as you take off and land. Chewing gum can help alleviate or prevent that uncomfortable feeling. But I had another purpose for my gum.
Once the flight was in the air, and the fasten-seatbelt was turned off, I’d get up and start wandering around. Remember, flights generally weren’t as packed as they are these days (and have been for what seems like the last 20 years), so there was room to roam. There were also two isles, so getting caught in front of or behind a drink cart (or meal cart…my goodness, they used to serve us meals!) wasn’t really an issue.
I’d wanter up and down the isles looking for something: friends.
If I saw a kid that was my age, I’d stop and ask them, “Do you want a piece of gum?” It was a simple gesture. Who doesn’t want a piece of gum? Sometimes, I’d get a “no,” but often, it was an enthusiastic “yes.” This was the gateway. Now I might have a companion for the flight.
I’ve got to be honest here. I don’t have a ton of memories of these kids. I don’t really remember what we’d do after giving them the gum. I suppose we’d chat. Perhaps we’d play cards (remember, they’d give you free cards), maybe we’d wander around. I really don’t remember. I just remember the gum—the gesture.
The reach for connection.
That’s really what it was, wasn’t it? An attempt at connecting. As a kid, I naturally knew that the flight would be easier with a friend, and I knew that I had to make that happen. The only way to do that was to reach for someone I didn’t know. I just needed a bridge—a symbol of some sort. Thus the gum.
I have no idea if this was something that I figured out on my own or if it was suggested to me by one of the adults in my life. What I do know is that somewhere along the way, I forgot about it. Connecting to others became more challenging. Walking into a room and striking up a conversation with someone I never met became a bit of an anxiety.
I stopped chewing gum in my late twenties when I was diagnosed with TMJ (gum chewing is really not advised when you have TMJ — even on airplanes). It’s not like I replaced it with mints. Or small pieces of chocolate3. No, I simply forgot about the bridge. I had some relationship trauma throughout the years, and I became much shyer than that kid who looked forward to wandering the aisles of the airplane.
As I’ve been thinking about the impact of my social shyness on reaching out and generating new business opportunities and filling programs, this story came back to me. To be specific, it was while I was out for a hike, my mind wandering gently as my feet made their way back down the summit I’d climbed. The memory flowed back in like an old friend. “Would you like a piece of gum?” I smiled inside and out when it came back to me.
That’s it, I thought. I want to offer the world some gum and see who says yes. Who wants to connect? Who wants to join this other kid on this random journey. We may never cross paths again, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy each other’s company and, perhaps, even help each other out a bit.
How about you? You want a piece of gum?