I live in a mostly friendly suburban town, where people often greet or at least acknowledge another person when walking past them on the street. But the other day Jim and I were walking in the neighborhood when we reached a corner at the same time as a couple coming from the other direction. They were in conversation; so were we. Jim said hi. I waved. They completely ignored our presence even though we passed within feet of each other.
It struck me as strange. The four of us were the only people in sight, yet the couple acted as if we weren’t even there. It got me thinking whether there are any etiquette guidelines for this kind of situation.
I asked ChatGTP. Answer: it depends. “In more rural or suburban areas, people might be more inclined to greet each other, while in busy urban areas, individuals may be less likely to engage in spontaneous greetings.”
Fair enough. If you start greeting every person you passed in New York City you wouldn’t have any time for your own thoughts or a conversation you might be having with a companion. And who wants to constantly interrupt or be interrupted just to greet strangers? But I noticed even in New Haven, near Yale, where people walk the streets but the streets aren’t crowded, nobody says hello to anyone else. It’s just “walk on by.”
People from the South are known for having good manners. This is what Southern Living had to say:
That seems like reasonable advice.
Then I read a post by ‘Anonymous’ (that poster is everywhere!) on Quora who wrote:
Why are Americans so friendly to people they pass by on the street? They look you in the eyes and say, “Good Morning,” or “Hello” as they walk past. What do they want? Why do they do this? It’s very off-putting.
Clearly, some people do not want to interact with other people on the street. It’s usually easy to tell if that’s the case. They have their earbuds in or are looking down or are talking on the phone. There is nothing wrong with that, and I respect anyone’s desire to be left alone. I’m the last person who’d want to intrude on anyone’s deep thoughts. At the same time, having to interact with others is a risk you take every time you step out the door.
I’ve decided to develop personal guidelines for how I interact with a stranger I pass on the street. The first thing I do is look for visual cues. I try to make eye contact with the other person, and if I do, or if they acknowledge my presence in any other way, I say hi or wave. If they act as if I’m not there, I say nothing, maybe I’ll give a subtle wave anyway.
So my guideline is: If you want to engage, I’ll engage. If you don’t, I’ll leave you alone. Just look me in the eye and tell me what you want.