Monday, September 21, 2015

Strangers in the night (or day): Is it really necessary to acknowledge all of them?

The other night I had an interesting conversation with a man at a party that had a familiar effect: Like so many others before him, he left me wondering if I'm actually a terrible person, after all.

We all have our insecurity things. For some, it's "Am I ugly?" For others, it's "Do I look fat?" Still others dwell on their dancing, their cooking, their walk, or their talk. I have my moments of uncertainty regarding all of the above and much more, but the self-doubting question with which I most often plague myself is this one: Am I actually a terrible person?

It's not something I typically ask myself unprovoked. While no one has never called me a terrible person outright, the question usually pops into my head when I'm in or have been in the company of another person.

The latest instance was on Friday night, and it began with a conversation I was having about social mores in Japan vs. social mores in the Western world...or something. The guy I was talking to expressed a people pet peeve that I can't say I'd ever heard before. He said he can't understand how people can share the same air space without acknowledging each other. Just a "Hello" or a little nod would do.

The way he explained it, you shouldn't enter an elevator without acknowledging the people in it. You shouldn't pass someone in the hallway without a gesture...or silently walk by anyone on an otherwise empty street. In short, it's common courtesy to let everyone you see and who sees you know that you see them and you're glad they're there, even if you couldn't care less.

I couldn't believe my ears (and they're probably the one thing that's never caused me a moment of insecurity). Most of the time when I'm in public, I'm deep in thought, wearing my headphones, or both. Is it really necessary for me to nod to everyone who passes? And furthermore, isn't "the nod" a black thing? Aren't there enough white people in Sydney for none of them to ever really feel alone?

"Sorry, I'm not that guy," I said once he'd finished. "I'm the one who drives you crazy by not even looking at you."

I could see the judgement start to cloud his view of me. We probably wouldn't become besties after my revelation, but someone had to break the news to him, just in case I ran into him on the street at a later date, and didn't see him...or recognize him. Chances are I'd probably pass by him without a word. That's what I do. Is that such a terrible thing?

He challenged me by asking me this: "But doesn't it always make you feel better when you have a pleasant encounter with a stranger, even if it's as minor as a nod?"

Well, to be honest, I don't care what people whom I probably will never see again do as long as they don't invade my personal space. If they do, then the only acknowledgment I expect is "Excuse me." Frankly, the less strangers have to say to me, the less I have to say to them. That's a pretty great arrangement.

He was looking at me like I'd lost my mind, so I quit while I was behind. But please, allow me to continue...

I can play the social game, but in general, I like to be left alone. One of the reasons why I avoid group dinners with mostly strangers is because I hate the moment when I arrive (usually late) and have to meet every single person seated at the table. It's not like I ever remember more than one name, and in Buenos Aires, I used to have to kiss each of them on the cheek, too.

I'd rather just quietly slip into a seat unheralded and strike up a conversation with whomever is in my immediate vicinity...or not. I figure that if I'm meant to meet anyone in particular, we'll naturally gravitate toward each other. There's no need for the host to interrupt all of the conversations already in progress to announce my arrival. He (or she) is the reason I'm there and the only one whose acknowledgement I require.

That said, I do remember thinking what a lovely person Sarah Jessica Parker was the time we passed each other backstage at David Letterman's late-night show, and she said, "Hello, how are you doing?" as she walked by. I thought it was a thoughtful gesture, and after that day, every time I watched Sex and the City, I always found myself rooting for Carrie Bradshaw, even when she was behaving abominably, as she often did.

There was that other time on Christmas Day in Buenos Aires when I was walking home after my morning run, and an elderly woman appeared out of nowhere and embraced me (without a cheek kiss, Gracias a Dios!). "Feliz Navidad," she said before going about her day.

As much as that kind, unexpected gesture made my morning, it was extra-special because it was so kind and unexpected. If everyone went around hugging me and wishing me a Merry Christmas, the heartwarming effect would eventually be diluted...and I'd probably get seriously annoyed.

So if you see me on the street and you feel like nodding, go ahead. I'll nod right back. But if, like me, you'd rather stay in your own world and get from point A to point B with as little fanfare as possible, it's OK. In the immortal words of Hal David (via Dionne Warwick), walk on by.

I promise I won't think any worse of you. And if you can do the same for me, that's really all the courtesy I need.
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