I used to be a runner. I liked running. I could run past people who were walking or running toward me and there was no expectation of any kind of verbal greeting or salutation. After all, a runner must conserve all their air and energy for the task at hand. A runner is assumed to be concentrating on not falling down or running into a telephone pole, but aside from that, it would be rude to interrupt their “high”. But alas, as time and wear and tear took their toll on me, I had to stop running and take up power walking instead. Of course, my loose definition of power walking is any walk taken without the aid of mechanical or motorized devices.
Now take it from me, walking is a whole other animal. With walking there are certain expectations of politeness and greeting. After all, how hard is it to walk and talk at the same time? Ah, therein lies the rub. The art of walking past complete strangers while you both try to conjure up a greeting is most definitely a lost one. I have noticed that these greetings fall into different categories.
For example, the “nod” greeting. This is the preferred greeting for a vast majority of walkers. It is pretty much effortless and doesn’t require a large vocabulary (or any vocabulary at all for that matter). There are a couple of kinds of nods. There is the “full nod” which implies that you have “been recognized as a living breathing member of the species but not yet worthy of vocalization”. Or the dreaded “half nod”, which is barely perceptible and says “I can’t avoid noticing you, but you appear to be a very low life form.” I seem to get a lot of these.
Take next, the “grunt” greeting. These are among the most difficult to interpret and take a seasoned walker like myself to sort out. The degree of friendliness implied by the grunt depends on the volume. From the highest volume (“It’s OK that you are walking past me”) to the lowest volume (“I would have given you just a half nod, but I have a stiff neck.”) I take heart when I get a high volume grunt. It means that maybe I will merit a verbal greeting the next time I walk past this person.
As for the “verbal” greeting, this is by far the most varied category. I have experienced everything from a hey (“OK, you got a verbal greeting, now don’t push your luck”), or a hi (“You just seem nicer than a hey”), or yo (“Don’t get too excited, this is my generic greeting”) to hello (“Not only do I acknowledge you, but you even appear to have some value to society”). When I get an actual “good morning or good afternoon” I pat myself on the back, for I have been officially accepted as a nonthreatening fellow earthling.
Of course, recognizing and replying in kind to the various greetings is only part of the challenge. Even more important is the timing. Do I wait for the other person to nod or speak first? Certainly this is the safest route since if they don’t, we can both pretend the other doesn’t exist without any hurt feelings. The danger in this is if they surprise me with a greeting at the very last second, I look like an idiot when I quickly mumble some inane response. Or, do I emit a greeting first to show I am one of the more evolved of the species? The gamble here is obvious, I risk total rejection! I have enough of that in my life already.
Some special situations I look out for: 1. Bikers. When I come upon people riding bicycles, I dismiss all worry about the rules of greeting, for cyclists are truly not of this world. 2. Skateboarders. I leave the trail immediately and seek shelter 3. People with dogs. I am a certified graduate of Cesar Millan’s School of Dog Whispering, need I say more? 4. Young mothers walking their babies in a stroller. I tread lightly as they are in constant “maternal instinct” mode and any exuberant greeting from a perceived dirty old man could be misconstrued. I have found my eyes tend to sting for hours after a mace attack.
Much of my walking requires returning the same way I came. As others may also be returning from the opposite direction, I will most likely see them again on the way back. This is the most awkward time of all. If they greet me again, I have to resist the urge to say “you have the mind of an imbecile because you can’t remember that we just greeted 10 minutes ago.” Or more woeful yet, I can’t remember, say something and thus become the imbecile myself.
One time, in a stroke of particularly bad luck, I came across a group of thousands doing a “Walk for the Cure.” I spent weeks in counseling after that one. How ironic that an activity taken to reduce stress produces an alternate kind of stress itself.
Well, I see it’s about time for my daily constitutional. If I see you walk by, I’ll be sure to nod (full, of course).