the politics of saying hello

This comes from my old Myspace blog, dated 9.15.2006. I was in grad school at the time, hence the outdated references to campus and classes.

So now that school has officially started, I find myself running into several people I spoke with last year in one capacity or another (shared a class, taught their class, asked a question of, etc), and I find myself wanting to say hi, wanting to recognize our temporary but still existent connection. And yet when I search for that eye contact, people seem more comfortable drifting into their previous anonymity. I’d say at least 90% of the time the other person will hang their head, pretend to read or talk on the phone, or just find something more interesting in the direction opposite me. I don’t blame them, necessarily. It just makes me sad that sometimes a simple hello in passing, a simple acknowledgement of the existence of people outside my personal social sphere, is too much to ask.

I find the same thing when walking down the street. Maybe it was just because people have a different social expectation from kids, but when I was young I always had people say hi back. Now it seems we work so hard to stay within our own bubble. It just feels like we are so disconnected from each other that a simple “Hi” on the street is too much a stretch of our identity. How did this happen?

It made me wonder, though, just what it takes to get to know someone. How much of an interaction is required so that it would be uncomfortable not to say hello? Two conversations? A shared experience? Knowing the other’s name? Of course, the answer is going to vary from individual to individual, but socially there has to be some norm that informs people when to forge connections.

How long does it take to really get to know someone? Two months? Six months? A year? My guess is that it depends on how honest you are with that person, but then that begs the question, what does it take to really get to know someone? Is it just knowing their secrets? Is it being able to predict their reactions to any given situation? Is it a certain amount of shared experiences? I feel I got to know one of my very best friends now within the span of perhaps six months mostly through the divulging of secrets, histories, and some similar emotional experiences. Of course any relationship involves constant discovery, but I would say I got to know him pretty well. Then there are others I’ve known for years and I still don’t know dick about them. And it’s odd, because there are people I’ve gotten to know within the past year that I may not know terribly well in that I myself haven’t shared a significant amount of personal information, but with whom I still feel close primarily due to shared experiences. I suppose knowing someone is all relative, and there are several degrees, but it still gives me pause.

But if you can seriously know someone in roughly six months to a year, how long does it take to fall in love? The two obviously happen concurrently, but falling in love is so much more enveloping, requires so much more intimacy and trust and vulnerability. I had a friend once tell me that two people could not possibly be deeply in love in less than a year. Generally that’s perhaps true, but I once fell deeply in love in less than five months with an intensive combination of shared secrets and experiences.

Perhaps these questions are the wrong questions. It’s not how long, but what it takes. Time will differ from relationship to relationship, but the basic content needs to be there. And there should be nothing wrong with forging different kinds of connections with different people. Not everything needs to be lasting, or deep, or involved. Sometimes, if you’ve talked with someone, it might not be such a bad idea to acknowledge your connection to that person, however fleeting it may have been. So if I see you on the street, don’t look the other way. I know you, you know me, maybe not deeply, maybe not in an important way, but we know the other exists, so let’s give a nod to each other, and say hello.

(note: the following is a response from Hillary Bauman, followed by a response to her response by me, both dated sometime within 2 weeks of the original posting)

Hello… I think people are afraid to show recognition all of the time. If we showed recognition to all of the people we saw each day on campus our life would be consumed with keeping up these relationships. I think not saying hello is a tool for keeping one’s output of energy to a minimum. We once lived in tribes that became villages that became towns that became cities that became the world wide web…so many faces…so little time…it’s an unfortunate part of today’s evolving society. Maybe we will someday have telepathy?

My response:
I totally agree with you in that we have an ever increasing number of communication media, and that we have expanded from tribes to a “global village.” However, that is exactly what I’m trying to get at: the global village may be great for business, but it’s shitty for normal, healthy communication. (I think it was Thoreau who, when told that a man from Buffalo could now talk to a man in Alabama with the use of the telephone, he replied, “But what will they say to each other?”) Local community activity has dropped incredibly in the past 20-30 years (do you know anybody that still gets together regularly for bridge or bowling?), largely due to the fact that we find safety in anonymity, among other reasons. I’m trying to make a call to strengthen local ties, which I believe to be especially important in a time when national and international issues are too greatly overshadowing local issues. And I’m not asking people to acknowledge everyone you see. Just those with whom you have previously shared a common bond. Just a recognition that you are aware of that person’s existence, that we have a shared history. I understand that may be too much to ask for from some, and that’s fine, that’s understandable. But then I think how easy it is for me, and I’m generally a pretty shy person. It’s mostly about getting outside your comfort zone.

Published in: on April 17, 2008 at 8:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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