"Exchanging glances, wond'ring in the night...."
July 23, 2008 11:14 PM   Subscribe

What do you do when you and someone you barely know are approaching each other? Always make eye contact and smile or say hi? Make eye contact and then keep walking? Keep walking unless they say something? Mentally scramble for small talk? Stop and tie your shoelaces?

You know those situations when you're walking down an interminably long hallway at work, or a path on campus, and you see someone you only kind of know coming in the opposite direction from a mile away? Obviously it depends on how well you (don't) know them, but when the more awkward moments arise, do you invariably acknowledge them in a super-friendly way? Wait for them to say something first? Give a warm half-smile or a cool half-nod and keep on going? It feels like a silly predicament, but I'm just curious if others feel like this is half as awkward as I do, esp the more introverted among us, and among those, the ones for whom smiles don't always come all that easily. Because sometimes it's just... awkward!

I've seen a couple other threads here revolving around the dilemma of acknowledging complete strangers (and those may very well end up below this post), but I've never found that to be a source of anxiety or perplexity, because if you get rebuffed, you'll probably never see them again in your life. Crossing paths with that "Larry" guy from three cubicles over while you're on your way to the men's room? That's a different story.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Human Relations (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Farther away leads to less of a greeting. Mostly, it's a nod from me. Which works well since I'm a guy.

Pretty much if they're across the street I consider it fair game to ignore them if I don't want to say anything.

Sometimes on days where I don't feel like talking to hardly anyone I'll grab my MP3 player and put the headphones on. If I listen to music or not is irrelevant, who's going to question someone with headphones?
posted by theichibun at 11:34 PM on July 23, 2008

I basically smile when I see them, and then ignore them until they get close enough to greet, and then say "hi".
posted by aubilenon at 11:35 PM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I pretend to not see them until I'm right up on them then I sort of whisper 'hey' and smile but not really make eye contact. But it's always awkward. So no help there.
posted by greta simone at 11:39 PM on July 23, 2008

I usually half-smile in acknowledgement.

If you're far away enough, it's fair enough to just pretend like you don't see them. If they're close enough, I throw out a quick hello and move right on.
posted by lullaby at 11:47 PM on July 23, 2008

I always smile and say hi as I pass.
posted by GlowWyrm at 12:10 AM on July 24, 2008

Maybe I'm just extra-outgoing, but if I'm actually going to cross their path or pass them, I say "Hi" or just "Hey" and smile or nod. Guess what...usually they respond in kind (sometimes after a shocked moment of adjustment to the idea of friendliness.) If this happens a few times we have a basis for some small conversation when we run into each other in the breakroom, bus stop, etc. This is really helpful because most of the time when you barely know someone, it's because you share some common social setting or circle and sooner or later you're going to run into each other again at some party, on some project, in a class, whatever, and since you have already laid a small foundation of familiarity, it's easy to be friendly.

This strategy is especially useful on a college campus, where you often will see the same people over and over and then suddenly you're working together on a project/trying not to fail the same class/enjoying the same party.

Friendliness pays off!
posted by no1hatchling at 12:14 AM on July 24, 2008

Smile, nod, and say hi or howyadoin' with enough eye contact to register acknowledgement but not bore a hole in their head. And be confident about being a person who always does this. Let people think and react however they like - you just do it every time and there won't be any anxiety about whether you should or not.

Would you rather be known as "that friendly person who always kindly says hello and acknowledges people" or as the person who "just walked right past me like I wasn't there" or who "is so uncomfortable"?

If it's a person you don't know very well, you're not expected to stop and chat. Just keep your step brisk (don't speed up) and do your smile/nod/hi and keep walking. If it's someone you know a bit better, but not really enough to stop and chat, you can kind of turn your body towards them as you keep walking and be a little more vocal in your greeting, like, "How's it going? Great. See ya". Resist the temptation in this case to bring up whatever thing you last had in common with the person, as it's transparent and awkward. "How about those napkins last week, huh? Ha ha ha." Don't be that guy. You can even turn around to keep facing them briefly as you pass and walk backwards sort of as if to say, "I've got to run but it's good to see you"

One thing I never figured out, though, were the rules for multiple office hallway hellos to the same person in the same morning, even if it's someone you know well enough to otherwise be friendly. You see them once and you're like, "Hi." The second time you're like, "Hi again." The third time is the inevitably horrible, "Are you following me?!" Blaaagh, makes me want to throw up, that one. And at that point you make a point not to go out in the halls anymore because a fourth time would cause some kind of rupture in the fabric of the space-time of awkwardness.

It illustrates that we don't have good rules for that situation unlike, say, the deeply ingrained and therefore stressless and thoughtless please-thankyou or sneeze-blessyou. This very blunt scientist guy at my last job once said to my friend when he said good morning for the second time in a short period, "You already said good morning." Ass! But he's right. I say we need a new ritual. Like maybe the second time you see someone, you have to issue a movie quote. And then if there's a next time, they fire one back. And maybe you have to guess the movie and maybe not. In this way, we would could settle into the comfort of ritualistic behavioral expectation - no thinking or guessing or wondering. "Luke, I am your father" would be met with, "We're all gettin' laid!"
posted by Askr at 12:20 AM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm very introverted, and I usually go with the half-smile. If they're farther away, I might add a sheepish wave.
posted by arianell at 12:22 AM on July 24, 2008

I think aubilenon has it; you should acknowledge them somehow as soon as eye contact is made with something like a quick smile/sheepish grin/whathaveyou, and then follow up with a "hey, howsitgoin" or some other auto-pilot question/response bit.

Once you do this enough times, it can progress to something a bit more. The more comfortable you get, the more you can say while walking past and away from each other. For example, people that I'm comfortable with get a decently genuine smile, and then we'll have an exchange or two before completely moving out of reasonable distance to continue talking.

It's rarely awkward to abandon this and just go with the smile too, but you don't want to be the person who doesn't say much. Smile, offer something simple most of the time ("hey, how are you?" can at worst be answered with "good") and you're golden.
posted by littlelebowskiurbanachiever at 12:46 AM on July 24, 2008

Corridor etiquette demands that once a corriedoo (q.v.) has been declared, corrievorrie must be employed.

To avert the horrors of corrievorrie (q.v.), corriecravie is usually employed.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 1:28 AM on July 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

It's a sliding scale I think - depends on the degree to which you 'kind of know' them.

On a vaguely related tack, I live in a village a few miles outside a fair-sized city. If I'm out in the early morning in my village, and pass a stranger in an otherwise-deserted street, I always say 'Hello' or 'Morning', and they tend to do the same. It would just seem 'wrong' to pass them without acknowledgement. But at any other time of day, or if there are more people around, neither party will acknowledge the other unless they recognise them from somewhere. In the city, on the other hand, strangers almost never seem to make eye contact, let alone exchange words.

Being a human is complicated and odd. But I'd say it's better to err on the side of friendliness. At the very least you'll leave a near-stranger with the impression that you're a nice guy, and what could be wrong with that?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:07 AM on July 24, 2008

I do the ole' eyebrow-raise. If I'm feeling gregarious, I'll also say "hey".
posted by ambulatorybird at 2:23 AM on July 24, 2008

I hate these situations! I never know what to do.

I just asked the boyfriend, and he said that he pretends not to see them until they get close enough, and then he waves/smiles/says hi.

And no he doesn't think doing that is still horribly awkward (although I do).
posted by Xianny at 2:39 AM on July 24, 2008

It is for these moments that I wear sunglasses and headphones.
posted by sunshinesky at 3:28 AM on July 24, 2008

huh, I must be wierd because I verbally acknowledge everyone I pass whether at work, on the street (not oo crowded in my small town). If I am outside my house and someone passes by on the corner 150 feet aaway I don't know I always shout a hello. This is the norm where I am.
posted by saucysault at 4:42 AM on July 24, 2008

Hallway nod; this situation is where the term nodding acquaintance comes from.
posted by TedW at 5:41 AM on July 24, 2008

When I am the instigator, I make some sort of weird, grim, stretchy-mouth non-smile. It is a smile that is completely horizontal and quite hideous. I have tried it in the mirror and it looks, more than anything else, rueful and disappointed. I guess that fits, because that is how I feel in these situations.

To avoid this horrid smile, I usually let the other person lead. If the other person is a hi-sayer, I hi-say right back. There is one girl at work who seems to glare at me every time I walk by--AND DOESN'T EVEN RETURN MY HORIZONTAL SMILEGRIMACE with a similar expression or a cool nod--and I have allowed this to upset me into disliking her for no other reason. Although she's probably just shy too.
posted by millipede at 7:22 AM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Like millipede, I have a special facial expression for these situations, which I think of privately as my "Human Condition Smile." Sort of a cross between a regular smile and the look you'd give someone who had fallen into a puddle. It's meant to convey something like "Ah yes, you're a human being too. Isn't it strange and interesting and sometimes sad?"

I doubt it really conveys all that though. I probably just look uncomfortable and possibly constipated. So I don't necessarily recommend this tactic to anyone.
posted by Mender at 8:28 AM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I look in my purse for that thing (my dignity), where is it? Where is it in my purse? Is it in there? Where? Ooops, and they're gone.
posted by prefpara at 9:23 AM on July 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

I make eye contact, smile, and then look away kind of sheepishly because while I am friendly and outgoing, I am also extremely self-conscious.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:35 AM on July 24, 2008

I usually fall so they'll have something to tell their real friends about later.
posted by jon_kill at 12:25 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Conventions differ in different places.

In most places I've lived: if you're in a crowded place, nothing. Otherwise, smile and nod. In certain cases, such as on a quiet neighborhood street, maybe add a quick hello.

It's not a big deal at all. I'm surprised so many people find this embarrassing.
posted by tangerine at 12:40 PM on July 24, 2008

Something like, "Hello :D"

But if it's someone you actually know, flash a reckless smile, raise your eyebrow, and meet them up top for a thunderclap high five. I've got the immature clown thing down pat.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 1:21 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I remember reading some study in interpersonal communications which concluded that there is an optimal distance at which two "nodding acquaintances" should nod at each other when passing each other. IIRC, that distance was somewhere between 8 to 15 feet, depending on how fast the walking pace is. Essentially, you both should be able to nod at each other and AND, should you desire, exchange names ("Fred." "Bill.") or a quick "Hey" of "Good morning" or, at most, a straight-up "Hey-how-ya-doin-great-thanks" exchange, which exchange should conclude just as you pass each other.
Anything more than 15 feet (or so) leaves an awkward gap between greeting and passing, which tempts other further dorkier exchanges. If you do the nod exchange thing too late, it may seem offputting.
So, if I see someone approaching 20 or so feet away- whether I make eye contact or not, I look away, like Xianny's bf, and wait until the optimal exchange distance and deploy any number of recognition cues, to wit: nodding upwards raising eyebrows briefly while smiling and saying "Hey" or "Mornin" "'Sitgoin'?" or whatev. Repeated passing gets increasingly diminished reaction, but never less than a smile and nod.
posted by Jezebella at 8:02 PM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

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