Pet peeve

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I’m walking to go somewhere. It doesn’t matter where, just that at the moment I can’t stop walking. Maybe I’m going to be late, maybe I’m crossing a street, etc.

So I’m walking and can’t reasonably stop, and then I encounter someone I know. Maybe it’s a friend, maybe a family member, maybe just an acquaintance. They are walking in the opposite direction. They saw me, so I can’t pretend I didn’t see them. It is obvious to both of us that they also can’t stop or change direction, so we will have at best 3-4 seconds to interact before we go out of range of each other. This is the worst possible situation, because no matter what I do, I can’t escape the inevitable awkwardness that is coming.

If I say Hi, or greet them in any way, they could just say hello and we’d be on our way. But that’s not what happens. They answer with something like “hey, how are you?”. Now I’m faced with a problem. First, there’s no way I can possibly give any sort of meaningful answer in the 1-2 seconds left of interaction available, so I have to go with the fake and useless “good” that society expects us to give when asked how we are. I can either just answer that, and sound rude, or I can go with “good, how about you?”, while knowing fully well that I will never get an answer because our time is up and they are now too far away for me to hear anything.

Of course, I also have the option of not saying anything in the first place, but then they will systematically open with “Hi, how are you” anyway, and the exact same scenario plays out.

How the hell is anyone supposed to either get a meaningful interaction or at least not look totally stupid when this happens? Why does anyone ask “how are you” in a situation where there is no possible way to get any information from it and it forces the other person into an awkward situation where they either have to ask a question that won’t get an answer or not ask it back and look uninterested.

This happened to me countless times and I never found a good way to handle this situation. Nobody wins that game! At least I think I’m getting better at spotting the dreaded circumstances early on, by spotting the acquaintance across the street waiting for the light to change, so I sometimes have a chance to choose an alternate route and avoid the awkwardness for everyone.

  • Kingfisher12

    It is an odd custom, and I’m not sure how it got started. I personally find it helpful to look at the purposes between social niceties, and look at how I can modify my own behavior to make something worthwhile out of the short exchanges.

    The most common brief exchange follows this pattern. (spoken words, followed by their actual meanings)
    A: “Hello” – I respectfully acknowledge your presence and recognize you.
    B: “Hello” – I respectfully acknowledge your acknowledgement.
    A: “How are you/ How’s it going?” – Are you in immediate distress and in need of assistance?
    B: “Fine, thanks” – I am not in immediate need of your assistance, and absolve you of further inquiry.
    B: “What’s new?” – Is there anything I ought to be aware of but might not be?
    A: “Not much” – Things are roughly the same since we last conversed.
    B: “See you later” – I acknowledge our continued acquaintance
    A: “Bye” – My feelings toward you (such as they are) are positive.

    There is actually a good amount of information exchanged, though much of it is trivial. In my own behavior I try my best to choose words with high information content, and I find it makes the exchanges less awkward.

    For example. The choice of initial greeting can avoid the need to ask how the other person is (unless there is an actual reason to ask – like you know the person has been ill). Instead of saying ‘Hello’, using ‘Good morning/day/evening’, or ‘Howdy!’ Carries the implication that you are well, and invites the other person to respond in kind – answering the same question without it having to be asked.

    In fact, using the words ‘Morning!’, ‘Evening!’, or ‘Howdy!’ can usually wrap up all the information in the example in a single word, inflected properly, and you can just smile and continue on your way.

    If the person doesn’t get the cue, and asks a follow up question, there are words to use to politely indicate that you don’t want to talk. I’ve personally found ‘Cheers!’ to be the best word for that purpose, though ‘take care’ works too.