Thursday, November 19, 2009

Seeing Someone You Know Across A Long, Unavoidable Hallway

Thank God most hallways aren't this long. But what if they were? And picture someone at the other end walking towards you. WWJD?

This is the classic awkward situation. In a certain sense (the sense of being such a common occurrence), it is the mother of all awkward situations. Let's say you're walking down a long narrow corridor or hallway or path. An acquaintance of yours (someone you often say hi to but not much more) comes strolling along from the opposite end, heading in your direction. Now, you both see each other. Assuming you have decent vision, you both recognize each other and most likely make eye contact. Once eye contact is made, you have probably 10-15 seconds during which to say your simple greeting of "hey how are you?" The unavoidable question is what to do during the extra 7-12 seconds after you say your little friendly but trivial hello. Most of us, to fill the uncomfortable silence whilest you walk past one another, try to start a little phony, yet brief conversation, usually asking something mundane such as "where are you headed?" Under no other circumstances with this person (whom you're not friends with) would you ask them where they're off to, let alone care. All of us have been in the situation in which we say hello at the very beginning, as soon as eye contact is made, and then are forced to look down at our feet in 5 seconds of excruciatingly awkward silence as we pass the person, as it hangs in the air that we  clearly have nothing more to say to one another than "how's it going?". These phony, "where you off to, man?" conversations, albeit awkward, are not pointless as they are a desperate attempt to avoid the painful silence we all have been scarred by at one point or another.

A person I know tries to avoid this situation but in the most obvious way (although I don't think he knows it's that obvious). We're not friends at all but happen to have said hi since freshman week. Every single time I see him, whether it's from across a 30 or a 5 meter hallway, he looks down the entire time at his feet, kind of bobbing up and down as if he's got some beat going on in his head and is in his own world, unaware of my presence. The whole time he's doing this I just stare at him trying to draw his eyes to look at me (I know he sees me), but he refuses. So at the very last second, after giving him every chance to say hi or at least make eye contact, inviting a hello from me, I say to him "Hi Jake!" (name has been changed). He looks up, startled, as if he's just been awoken from a nap, focuses his eyes for a second, finally pretends to recognize me for the first time (what horseshit), then changes his look and voice from confusion to excitement and exclaims "Clayyyy!" The first couple times he tried to pull this shit I gave him the benefit of the doubt and thought he was just in his own world but he's done this in literally every single one of our 40 or so interactions. Although I agree with him, these "hallway encounters" can be somewhat awkward, they aren't so awkward that they should paralyze one into this phony "whoa didn't see you there" act.

Most people, when they see someone they know coming towards them from a distance, see them at first (and perhaps make a brief, yet noticeable eye contact that they deny to themselves ever happened) and then look down at their feet. Perhaps they take out their cellphone and pretend to check the time or send a text. Adjust a strap on the backpack. Pretend to be observing an interesting squirrel on the tree off to their right. Anything to give them an excuse for why they're not looking straight ahead, which is what we do when we walk under almost all circumstances. Then at the very last minute, after both people have occupied 10 seconds with some bullshit excuse for looking down or pretending not to notice the other person, look up at the last second (right as they're passing the person) and look at them as if they just noticed their presence for the first time and give the friendly, "hey Mitch!"

I remember at a very small camp I went to (about 40 people total) a counseler was describing a brutally awkward and embarrassing, yet simple interaction he had. He was passing by the director of the camp, whom he had already seen several times that day, from a relatively long distance (15 meters). Now cellphones and watches weren't allowed, and backpacks weren't worn, so he was pretty short on deawkwardizing options. He said, "hey Hap." Hap replied "hello Ridge" A silence arouse, and they still had about 4 more seconds in silence before they would pass each other. So Ridge, panicking about this awkwardness, and not too quick on his feet, asked, "Hap, what time's the haying tomorrow." (Haying was when all the hay came and we all unloaded it into the barn.) Hap looked at Ridge with a little smile, seeming to realize that he had asked this question with no purpose, just to fill a silence and said "Ridge, how long have you been a counselor here? You know what time the haying is." Busted. Ridge got red in the face and walked onwards. At least he wasn't stuck in silence.

To be perfectly honest, besides convenience, another reason I ride a bike around campus is that I don't have to deal with these awkward situations as much. On a bike, the time that passes between two people is much shorter so I don't have to calculate these ways to avoid eye contact or have a phony conversation about where the other person is headed.