a conversation with me in public places.
I’ve wondered what’s different here.
Are people who choose to purchase big
expensive suburban homes—as opposed
to a condo in the city—trying to buy
To satisfy my curiosity, I walked
around town recently talking to strangers about talking to strangers. Everybody
I asked said they are less likely to converse with strangers in Bethesda—and
the District—than in other places they’ve
lived or worked. A Metro police officer
who works throughout the region said
commuters on the Orange Line in Fairfax and Arlington, Virginia, are by far
the most likely to make eye contact with
him, smile and exchange pleasantries.
Carly Roner, 23, lives in Rockville and
works in Bethesda in business adminis-
tration. In her native Peru, strangers who
meet on the street often have extended
conversations. “It’s very friendly,” she
said. Here, strangers occasionally ask her
for directions, but those interactions are
brief. “Here, you ask a question and that’s
it, gotta go,” she said. “People are focused
on what they are doing and their work.”
Travis Hite, 33, a research scientist at
a Bethesda-based startup, said this area
is friendlier than the District, where he
lives with his wife and infant. Still, the
entire region is far less friendly than
where he grew up. “In southwest Vir-
ginia, you couldn’t not talk to people,” he
said. “If you ask someone how they are
doing, you get an hourlong conversation.
Here, if you say, ‘How are you doing?’
Efficient. That word kept coming up.
you get back, ‘Fine. How are you?’ And
that’s the end of it.”
Hite sees a connection between peo-
ple’s habit of not chatting with strangers
and this region’s unusually intense focus
on work. He misses the friendliness of
southwest Virginia. Still, he said, “It’s
more efficient here.”
I was pondering it minutes later when
banter | SUBURBANOLOGY
I spotted a woman sitting alone in the
center of a long communal table at
Le Pain Quotidien in Bethesda Row.
I sat near her, even though there were
plenty of other empty seats. She looked
Melanie Eisner, 34, is a licensed clinical social worker who recently opened
an office in Bethesda. She was eating
lunch at the communal table—which, in
theory, is a place to interact with strangers—because she liked the lighting there,
she said. She had her laptop open and
was writing something work-related.
She’d been at the table for 45 minutes,
and I was the first stranger, other than a
waitress, to speak to her.
I asked Eisner, who grew up in
Rockville, what she thought about the
inefficiency of talking to strangers and
the consequences of being so efficient
that we often don’t. “I think people feel
very isolated and alone in general,” she
said. “They think they are the only ones.
They don’t realize so many people feel
the same way. It’s the rare person who
has this wonderful sense of community.
“In Bethesda, people are raising
kids. They are trying to get them into
the right activities that will help them
get into the right schools. It’s all about
efficiency. They don’t feel like they have
time to get to know some stranger.
There is a huge hierarchical thing here,
April Witt ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a
a merciless striving to get to the next
level in the hierarchy. I work with kids
who are 11 and worried that if they get
a B, they don’t get into the college of
After I finished interviewing Eisner,
neither of us got much work done. We
sat for a long time in the sunny restau-
rant drinking green tea and chatting
about things like life and love. She
told me about a blog I might like on
the creative process. I told her about a
book I like on the same topic. It was a
very inefficient conversation. And I felt
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