writer, speaker, content creator

A Common Dilemma

In Social Conventions on March 12, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Let’s say that you’re walking down the street. Let’s say it’s mostly unpopulated, and you can see, about a block in front of you, a person walking in your direction. Very soon, you and that person will pass each other.

What do you do? Do you give them a short “hello/good morning/good evening” (etc.) or do you simply walk by in silence?

I have no idea what the right answer is.

On one hand, you want to say “hi.” That’s the nice, basically pro-social thing to do. You acknowledge them, they acknowledge you, if only for a passing moment.

On the other hand, a greeting can be sort of presumptive. They (or for that matter, you) might be doing a rather important bit of thinking, and who are you to interrupt them? They might be enjoying their walk, enjoying their time without people, and why the hell should you presume to interrupt their perfectly peaceful headspace with a meaningless and perfunctory greeting?

I honestly don’t know what the preferred course of action in this case is. Part of me wants to err on the side of being pro-social and say “hi,” but I can’t do an adequate job of convincing myself that that’s actually the right choice.

The larger issue, though, is that part of me wants to live in a world where it’s okay to strike up conversations in public by saying, “Hello, sir! What a fantastic hat you have on today!” or something to that effect. However, my recent experiences with people talking to me in public have been, at best, annoying. A while ago a woman on public transit saw that I was reading and asked me “How’s your book?” I wanted come back with a rejoinder like “More interesting than you,” but thought the better of it. I was also in line for a restroom recently, and a man said something like “This sure is a long line!” I couldn’t conjure up a good response to such an asinine unsolicited comment.

Those experiences notwithstanding, though, I’m not a misanthrope and, when it comes to people, generally like them. However, social norms tend to be in favor of introversion, and while that’s nice if one wants to read in peace, I often wonder how many interactions and potentially edifying social experiences we miss out on.

  1. …and then you get mugged.

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