Among the many dichotomies in human behavior, I believe one of the most telling is a person’s willingness — or lack thereof — to greet an acquaintance. There are those that will shout “Hey, Avery!” across a crowded courtyard to get my attention, even though we haven’t spoken since mid-winter quarter. There are others, such as myself, who will only say hello to an acquaintance when direct eye contact is made and there’s no way to avoid a “hello” without being rude. For those like me, who truly want to be friendly but struggle to socialize with acquaintances, casual greetings can be a source of legitimate stress, especially at a place like Stanford.
After a year at Stanford, I have built up a small circle of good friends, but a massive circle of peripheral acquaintances. Students I’ve met in classes, at meetings for clubs I never joined, at speaking events and sorority rush, pop up at every corner. Some are people I once spoke to frequently in class and know by first and last name, while others are simply familiar faces without name or context.
By now, I believe there are hundreds of people on this campus who fit on my spectrum of acquaintances, and each encounter with one of them is its own moral and social dilemma. With those who I know from class and once spoke to semi-regularly, the question is: should I strike up a conversation, leave it with a nice hello, or just offer a friendly smile? Would they be annoyed if I tried to engage in conversation, or offended if I didn’t? The situation is even worse with distant, one-time-interaction acquaintances, since it’s unclear whether or not they remember me. Inevitably, I give them an extra-long stare, trying to remember where I met them. When they meet my eye contact, my heartbeat speeds into full gear: should I say hello or smile? Will they think I’m creepy if they don’t remember me, or think I’m cold and awkward if I look away and they remember me better than I remember them?
Though I am constitutionally a quiet person, I’m also inclined to smile and say a quick hello to anyone I recognize. After all, how could someone be annoyed to get smiled at? But I am also conscious of my upbringing: I was raised in a mixture of California and Colorado, two places known for their friendly, greeting-oriented populations. In my neighborhood, it is perfectly normal to smile and say hello to a complete stranger walking down the street. In fact, it is expected that you smile at strangers. I know this is far from the cultural norm in other states, let alone other countries, where many Stanford students come from. I cannot rely on my Southern California greeting instincts to lead me through social interaction at Stanford.
At the same time, it seems far more damaging to tend in the other direction, towards ducking my head or assuming a neutral expression when passing by an acquaintance. Sure, an overzealous greeting towards a Manhattan native might leave us both feeling confused or awkward, but an underperformed greeting towards an outgoing and genuine acquaintance might leave them feeling ignored and discouraged by my coldness. Is it worth pushing myself to offer friendly greetings to everyone, at the risk of embarrassment, to avoid hurting anyone with indifference?
Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. But to all the introverts and shy people out there who also struggle with the Stanford acquaintance greeting syndrome, you are not alone. My inclination, and one I am trying to practice myself, is to be the friendliest and most outgoing version of yourself within your comfort boundaries when dealing with acquaintances. After all, I always appreciate it when someone shouts across the courtyard to greet me. Maybe that’s my Southern California kicking in, but it seems reasonable to believe that it’s the universal principle of human kindness.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.