Sunday, November 6, 2011


I know this has happened to you. You’re walking down the street, a path, a hallway, and someone else is walking toward you. You can see for a good distance in front of you so the both of you know that you are walking toward one another and there aren’t really any other people around, so you will soon be passing right by each other. If you know this person well, at this point you have probably already waved or said hi or started thinking about what you will talk about when you both inevitably stop and chat. If I were walking across Colby for example, and saw a good friend walking toward me, I would be psyched. I would probably wave, and smile, and she probably would too, and then when we met we might hug, and chat for a few minutes. I might even turn around and start walking with her instead of reaching my original destination.

When you find yourself in this situation, however, walking toward someone you don’t know, or worse, someone you sort of know but who may not know you, or someone who may not remember that you know each other, or someone that you’ve only met once before, or someone that you just interacted with minutes before and now you’re awkwardly seeing again, this is a completely different game.

Can you picture it? You’re walking down a long path, no one else around, and you realize that someone else is walking toward you. It’s quiet out. You are going to walk past each other very soon. Are you going to acknowledge them? Are they going to acknowledge you? Where are you supposed to look if you don’t look at them? Just past them? At the ground? At the sky? At your watch? Should you look them in the eye? Smile? Nod? Say hi? No, saying hi might be weird, what if they don’t remember that you know each other? But, yes, saying hi is a nice thing to do, why not? But what if they aren’t looking at you? Should you get their attention by saying hi? That is too much of a game time decision, and you have to decide on your move now. You could always pull out your phone but if you sort of know this person, this is a clear avoidance tactic. You might as well just stop to tell them that you feel awkward about saying hi so you’re going to pretend to text while you walk by them. So then remember that all of this is happening in a period of about 10 seconds, although it will have felt more like 5 minutes. And all of this time, you can pretty much be certain that they are running through all of these same questions in their head at the same time. You are both, simultaneously trying to figure out how to acknowledge or not acknowledge each other as you pass. You’re getting closer and closer. Where do you look during all of this time? Maybe you say a quick hi, but if it’s too soon, you now have to walk toward each other for what will seem like 10 more minutes. Should you now say how are you to fill the next few moments? Or do you just look down as you pass them? Or smile? Or pull our your phone???

Although I feared sounding completely crazy by writing this post, I am pretty much certain that everyone has been in this situation before, because I realized recently that it happens everywhere. I used to think it was just a small liberal arts college thing because it used to happen to me on the regular, walking across the narrow Colby walkways, surrounded by people that I sort of knew, and sort of knew me. But it recently happened to me right here in Cambridge, on the sidewalk. The dude was a total stranger, but I couldn’t help anticipating the moment that we would walk right past each other, no one else around for distraction. Should I acknowledge him? I mean we are two human beings walking right past each other. Is it weirder to a) Say hi, even though I don’t know him, b) Acknowledge him with a smile and not say hi, or, c) Look away and don’t acknowledge him at all?

As you can tell, I’ve given this some thought. And the answer is C. It’s really weird to walk past someone and not acknowledge them at all. I’ve tried it. And it’s awkward. For both parties. After much thought and reflection, and trial and error, I have concluded that it’s pretty much always better to just say hi, especially if you know the person. And if you don’t, at least acknowledge them in some way. The definition of “know” can be left open, but I would pretty much group in anyone who is not a complete stranger on a city street, because if you go to the same school, or live in the same small town, or workout at the same gym, you might as well know each other. At least enough to say hi. If everyone just said hi in these situations, then we all wouldn’t have to think as much about how to greet or not greet each other because we would know what to expect.

A couple of weekends ago I was in New Orleans for a conference. One morning I was waiting at the streetcar stop and a man walked up to wait too. “Good morning” he greeted me. I smiled and returned the greeting. We were strangers to each other but it seemed so right to say hello. Not to mention, it put a smile on my face. So much of our communication today happens through text messages and gchatting, and facebook. Now, more than ever, it’s important to connect with the people that are right in front of us, even if it's just a hello.

I am certainly not suggesting you say hi to everyone you pass. I would probably find that intrusive and bothersome. Sometimes it is nice to go out and not have to interact with anyone. I am simply recommending, to myself and to you all, that if you find yourself in a situation where you have to consider taking out your phone or looking at your watch just to avoid an awkward passing, don’t do it. Just say hi.

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