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Like Ships In The Night

Will we ever know the best way to interact with people we pass on the sidewalk?

For as social a creature as we humans can be, I’m not sure if we’ll ever figure out the best way to greet the person walking toward us on the sidewalk, or whether to even greet them at all.

It’s a phenomenon I first noticed in college. Even though this school had a rather small student population, odds were good that while walking across campus you would run across a couple of acquaintances to whom you could say hello and dozens of people you didn’t know at all. Occasionally, during the lower traffic periods, I would casually say hello to some of the strangers heading in the opposite direction. More often than not, the response was a look of confusion and then an aversion of the eyes to the ground.

It’s easier when you’re in a big city with thousands of pedestrians moving about. You’d go insane trying to acknowledge every single one of them, so everyone moves as a pack and takes other people into account only to the extent that they have to not collide with them. But in a small town or city it becomes a tricky problem. Another person is out taking a walk by themselves, and they’re heading toward you. Do you steadily focus on something else, like your feet? Do you give them a warm greeting? Do you make eye contact and give a quick nod and smile?

Ignoring a person seems like the safest way to go, which might be why it seems like such a popular option. You avoid any sort of awkward situation, even if that’s just a person giving you an odd look as if to say, “Do I know you?” But something about this approach just seems so callous. It reminds me of an episode of one of the Twilight Zone reboots, in which the criminal punishment of “invisibility” gives people an identifiable mark that serves as a signal that everyone else cannot even acknowledge their existence.

Giving someone a vibrant “howdee do” also has its downsides. Sure, you might brighten up someone’s mood, but there are also plenty of people who respond to cheerfulness by becoming even more bitter if they’re in a bad mood. And of course, it’s likely to get a little tiring if you do it over and over. Though I loved a job I once had as a museum educator, there were certainly days when happily greeting visitors seemingly every few minutes started to grate.

That leaves the smile and nod option, perhaps the best bet of them all if you want to make an acknowledgement of your fellow pedestrians. A quick glance, a subtle motion, and you’ve essentially said, “Hi, nice day isn’t it?” All of the options, though, allow you to use your own discretion. Odds are you aren’t going to try to give any sort of greeting to a couple chatting with each other or a person yammering away on their cell phone.

And then, of course, there’s the question of getting around people going in the same direction you are. There are quite a few Facebook groups expressing the urge to punch slow-moving people in the back of the head. While this certainly isn’t the way to deal with such pedestrians, there are times when I wonder if it’s best to call out a warning about which side you’re passing on. I have a tendency to get into people’s blind spots, and I think I’ve spooked quite a few slow walkers as I head around them.

It almost seems like there should be some sort of unwritten code by now. I’ve seen truck drivers and motorcyclists frequently give waves to similar vehicles when they cross paths on the road. As a rule, hikers almost always give at least an exhausted “hey” to the fellow trekkers they come across on trails. And though I’ve seen complaints that bicyclists and runners sometimes aren’t friendly enough to give a greeting to other enthusiasts out on the road, it happens often enough.

I guess I can’t give too much advice on this, other than to say that a quick nod and a bit of eye contact never hurt anyone. And if you don’t want to be greeted in such a way, there’s always a Blackberry or an iPhone you can immerse yourself in. And also, don’t punch people in the back of the head. That’s not sporting, and not very legal either.

Beverly Langeveld August 15, 2011 at 10:33 PM
Maybe it depends on where you're walking. When we were on Martha's Vineyard, there was a beautiful walkway by the ocean. Everyone there said good morning to people walking in the opposite direction. The bikers called "On your left" when they were going to pass you, and everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood (probably because they were on vacation). The one thing I remember best is the older gentleman who tipped his hat to me and said, "Mornin'" and then kept walking. Chivalry and manners do have their place, but perhaps seem strange to the younger generation.

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