Some years ago Harper’s magazine published a translation of a brochure for German tourists. Among its most insightful tips was that when Americans ask, “How are you?” they don’t expect a serious answer in return.
This observation reveals an important truth about the American psyche: our reputation for openness and authenticity is easily trumped by our habits of consumption and our drive for success. We want to appear as though we are welcoming and caring, so we sometimes ask The Empty Question: “How are you?” But the truth is, we are very busy. We can’t afford the time to get to know you, so we hope you will go along with our little game and not trouble us with a complicated answer. A simple, “I’m fine,” will do.
To make matters worse, introversion is on the rise. Rather than connecting us more — as once was believed — modern technology provides us with a variety of screens to use as barriers between us and other people. In a great boon for those who would rather not greet anyone at all, it is now possible to hide in plain view by simply pulling out one of the many portable devices we carry around with us.
This is not entirely a bad thing. Unless you are very lonely, casual conversation with the common stranger is rarely worth the effort. Introversion has a way of keeping the peace in these troubled times, and essays on the virtues of solitude have become quite popular. I have always been somewhat introverted, and as I get older I find myself less and less interested in speaking to the random people I encounter in the world beyond my screen. I am not a misanthrope. I am never mean to the people I meet. But experience tells me that, in most cases, I prefer my own thoughts to yours. Sorry. It’s nothing personal.
The introvert’s problem is that there are an enormous number of people out in the world, and unless you are a complete shut-in, you are forced to pass through the crowd from time to time. Brushes with other people are unavoidable, but if you are careful, you can get away with the least interaction possible. For the introvert, the most desirable kinds of encounters are The Escape and The Smile. Failing these, you are doomed to The Conversation.
In the case of a stranger, there is usually no need to greet the person at all. If you keep your head down and appear to be in a hurry, you can frequently avoid any real encounter. There is never a requirement to do more, unless for some reason you are drawn to the person and want to prolong the meeting — a rarity for introverts. So, in most cases, passing quickly without eye contact or conversation is ideal.
Sometimes, if you aren’t paying attention, your head may float up from the preferred downward gaze, allowing an on-coming person to make eye contact. In this case, it can be difficult to avoid some kind of reaction, and The Smile is always your best choice. Given the circumstances, you may not feel warmly towards this person at all. It is more likely you are at least a little annoyed. But a smile signals that all is well and both of you can carry on with what you are doing. Other choices of expression, such as the frown, the interested glance, or the blank stare, are likely to evoke unpredictable reactions in the receiver and possibly prolong the encounter. On the other hand, grinning too broadly may make you look like a creep. So a quick smile is usually the best option.
In most encounters with strangers it is possible to avoid speaking at all. However, if the person looks at you in a particularly imploring way, or if — as is all too frequently the case — the stranger is moved to say “Hi,” you are stuck. As much as you would like to offer a non-verbal acknowledgment — a nice false smile, for example — and slip away, social convention demands that you produce a verbal response. In this case, it is best to offer a brief, “Hi,” in return. Be cordial but continue to appear busy and distracted. Keep moving, and get away as quickly as you can.
Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to go on to ask The Empty Question, “How are you?” In today’s world, it is an easy mistake to make, but it is completely unnecessary. The person before you is a stranger. You are under no obligation to care about or inquire into their inner workings. If you make this common slip, you have just crossed the border between introvert and extrovert, and you are likely to inherit all the slings and arrows that the extrovert world is heir to.
So remain calm. If you have to say anything at all, just say, “Hi,” and leave it at that. You will get away knowing that you have minimized your reliance on false congeniality.
If, on the other hand, the stranger engages you in conversation, employing The Empty Question or some other verbal gambit, you are trapped. This is a particularly common hazard when you are in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In this case, the best defense is to pull out your cellphone or a magazine before any conversation can begin. If you look like you are reading, you can avoid interaction with all but the most gregarious strangers.
In the case of vague acquaintances, escape is considerably more difficult. Suppose you are at the grocery store, and glancing across the produce section, you spot your son’s 2nd grade — or was it 3rd grade? — teacher. You don’t remember her name, but you have a dim recollection of your former association. Unless you have particularly warm feelings toward the teacher, this is a sticky situation that could be headed for an awkward encounter.
The Escape is only possible if you are certain your acquaintance did not notice you looking over at them. In this case, keep your head down, look distracted, and leave the area as soon as you can. If you cannot leave immediately and there is a possibility of running into the acquaintance again in the store, you will have to be very vigilant — like a spy or a private detective. Keep an eye out while maintaining a pose of great absorption in whatever might be nearby. A cellphone screen can be a very useful in this instance. Leave the area as soon as possible.
If you fail to accomplish The Escape, the next best thing is to get away with The Smile. A number of factors make this a difficult maneuver. Even the vaguest of acquaintances may feel mildly offended if you fail to speak to them on meeting. Furthermore, “the vague acquaintance” is a category with fluid and unequal boundaries. As I get older, I find that many people feel closer to me than I feel to them. Perhaps we worked together in some tangential capacity years ago, or we once lived in the same neighborhood and saw each other on a regular basis. A little bit of time passes, and before long I have neatly moved these people into the vague acquaintance category. Unfortunately, I have a sense that the half-life of acquaintanceship is longer for some people than it is for me, and many of these people continue to think of me as a familiar — rather than vague — acquaintance.
All of this can make it difficult to get away with just a smile. If your acquaintance is feeling sociable and you have the bad fortune of making eye contact, it can be hard to escape without at least a brief conversation. However, if you are some distance away, you might get off with The Smile. For example, you might have the good luck to be in the fruit section near the entrance to the store while your acquaintance is in the onions and potato section. In this case, it would take considerable effort to traverse the aisles between you and strike up a conversation. You should try to maintain a separation of approximately thirty feet and give the appearance of being in a great hurry. With luck, you may be able throw a brief but broad smile and perhaps a wave in the acquaintance’s direction, followed by resumed thumping of a honeydew melon.
The Wave can be a particularly useful gambit here because waves are, by definition, communication at a distance. They crop up when it is difficult or impossible to bridge the gap between people, and they signal that the waver is being warm and friendly but has no intention of coming closer. You can only hope that if you smile and wave while looking harried and rushed, the other person will feel warmly greeted but be discouraged from approaching. It is difficult to know exactly what to do, but in the face of a potentially awkward encounter, the introvert almost always tries to get by with a smile and perhaps a wave.
If all else fails, it may be necessary to exchange actual words with the vague acquaintance. My dilemma is that often I don’t remember the person, and even when I do, I would usually prefer to have as little interaction as possible. If you are lucky, you can get by with a lukewarm, “Hi,” and a quick turn into the canned fruits aisle. But if you are cornered without an easy exit, you may have to employ The Empty Question: “How are you?” By cultural agreement, this question conveys concern while at the same time all but guaranteeing a short conversation. If you use it, you are giving in to a kind of distasteful falseness. Nonetheless, for the busy introvert, The Empty Question is a useful American invention.
By definition a friend is someone you enjoy and with whom you hope to maintain a relationship. As a result, you may be drawn to greet a friend in a more genuine way, making The Escape unnecessary. Furthermore, escape is more risky in this context. If your friend sees you leaving and gets the impression that you are deliberately trying to avoid them, you may damage your relationship. To be sure, there are circumstances — particularly for introverts — when you would prefer not to interact with someone who is a good friend. But employing The Escape in this situation is not recommended. Instead, offer The Empty Question, perhaps fortified with some more personal comments. If you are careful, you can manage the delicate trick of being both authentically friendly and looking like you are in a hurry. If you are successful, you will maintain your friendship while getting away relatively quickly. This is as much — or as little — as can be expected when encountering a friend.
Again, with true friends, The Smile — even combined with The Wave — may not be sufficient to maintain good relations. If you really are in a hurry and fortunate enough to be at some distance away, you can employ The Smile, perhaps combined with The Wave, but you had better make a mental note to apologize the next time you see the person. The better strategy would be to engage in a brief conversation in the interest of friendship maintenance.
If the friend is someone you consistently enjoy running into, there shouldn’t be a problem. Even introverts have friends, and in many cases, we can be quite engaging in a one-to-one conversation. As a result, the guidance of the German tourist brochure is not needed, and the introvert looks and behaves like anyone else.
A Final Note
I can hear some of you saying, “Who gives a shit? Why do I care what a stranger or a vague acquaintance thinks about me?” And, of course, adopting this attitude is a viable option. Forget about all this social calculus. Just carry on and let the chips fall where they may. However, the introvert rarely finds this an attractive choice. In today’s world, the person who veers away from social norms is likely to draw attention. Strangers may object to your behavior, and vague acquaintances and friends may come to dislike you — none of which appeals to an introvert. In the introverted world, things work best when people have a generally favorable opinion of you and leave you alone. The introvert prefers to be invisible, and the best way to achieve invisibility is to keep a watchful eye, be aware of your social surroundings, and employ a few simple strategies to get you in and out quickly. Introverts give a shit.
Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association, and Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money. His work has appeared in Observer, The Atlantic, The Good Men Project, and Tablet. He writes the “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
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