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The Dartmouth
May 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Salutation Dread

Reflections on friendship, acquaintance-ship and the plague of the awkward head nod.


As one often does walking around a small campus with a small population, I run into people I know frequently. But when the circumstances are wrong, this can be a very grave thing. These are the worst of interactions, those with semi-acquaintances. If you have the fortitude to bear it, picture a long passageway, maybe a hallway or one of the wide gravel paths cutting across the Green at seemingly arbitrary angles. Say you’ve just had class at Silsby, and want to run to Hinman. All would be well, but there they are: someone you sort of know, strolling from the opposite end of the Green, certain to pass you by and force your hand. 

You talked once offhandedly at a club meeting, or better (or worse) yet, for the purposes of this cruel thought experiment, they are a friend of a friend of a friend and you happened to have lunch with them once, three months ago. They eye you from across the Green, and you both must now engage in a prolonged, dreadful game of social chicken. It’s a perfect storm. You are not just on the perpendicular Foco-to-Fayerweather route, but the hypotenusal one that geometrically guarantees the most awkward suspense possible. The question that overwhelms you for these 20 seconds blares in your mind: How do I greet them?

A wave could work. Simple enough, but it risks their non-compliance. Plus, that one lunch three months ago doesn’t quite necessitate a wave. That type of salutation expires somewhere in the fuzzy one-to-two-month-post-lunch range, depending on the quality of the conversation. But the conversation quality is deeply subjective, and what you thought was a great lunch was potentially only an okay lunch for them. This could produce a mismatched greeting, the worst of passerby sins. 

It could go something like this: You give a slight, palm 45 degrees up wave, and they respond with just a head nod. Not the end of the world, but this type of interaction has the potential to kill any future waving behavior. The thing with these greetings is that they must be actively maintained. Once first names are dropped and a “hey, Connor!” becomes a “hey,” it soon enough becomes a wave, before the certain downgrade to the head nod, to the even more slight nod, before eventually, all hell breaks loose — eye contact is made but both parties panic, gazes are quickly averted and the acquaintanceship is left lying dead in the dirt. 

There are some people with whom I fortunately have good chemistry in this respect. With these perfect acquaintanceships, despite having not re-engaged in conversation since orientation week, we’ve worked solidly to stay at this fabled “hey, [first name]!” level. There are others that have slid down the greeting hierarchy, and to my immense regret, where once we were the best of acquaintances, we are now but ships passing in the night (on the Green).

The thing is, this greeting game is hard. There are a lot of variables at play: walking speed, wave-timing, eye-contact-prolongment and, of course, time-elapsed since the  most recent similar greeting. Not to mention, you must actively calculate your opponent’s action at the same time as your own, creating a weird social prisoner’s dilemma in which both strategic parties could theoretically optimize their outcome through cooperation but cannot as a result of imperfect information. 

Now, back to the moment you see them — they’re getting closer. Maybe they’ll break left at the middle gravel strip? Nope. The greeting, whatever awkward form it takes, will occur, and you are a failed mutineer staring down the plank that extends from your ship, hoping the drop into the shark-infested waters will magically never occur. But it’s time to get real. Clear the throat, in case they opt for a verbal greeting. Closer, closer. 

It was a nod. Neutral, fine and it’s over. You returned the nod, matching almost exactly the degree to which they smiled. Time will tell how this bodes for future greetings. A natural course would be for at least one or two more nod interactions, but if you throw in an actual conversation at some point, you could be back on waving terms. Let’s try to keep things realistic, though, and not expect to ever get back up to first name status. A couple of nods in a row just about kills those chances. 

What I hadn’t prepared for in college was the extent to which you become sort of acquainted with everybody. This breeds a new level of interaction, one that requires a lot of mental effort and is distinctly unnatural in comparison to real friendships that come so naturally: friendly, plain nicety for the sake of nicety. 

“I guess I know this person? I of course don’t dislike them, but I don’t know if I’d say we are friends?” The easiest option is to maintain the artful salutation. And alcohol throws a whole other unbearable wrench in it all: We talked for 20 minutes Friday night about the mini crossword — do I now opt for a head nod or a wave during these awful processions on the Green (or really any long, narrow stretch with good forward visibility and little ability to hide)? 

Acquaintanceship is a seemingly innocuous but really abysmal state of affairs. My social engine only has so much mileage, and a good chunk is sapped away by these pass-bys. Even worse — and requiring a whole separate analysis — is the acute pain of entrapment in small talk. This is stir-fry line chatter, and it is insidious. Consider the post-break social glut, with most conversations exhibiting little variance with the following template: 

“Hey man, what’s up! How was break?”

“Oh, dude, it was good. Just nice to relax, you know.”

“Oh yeah, totally. Feels weird to be back though.”

“I know right! Alright, catch you later. We should grab a meal.”

Even more hilarious was the orientation banter:

“Hey nice to meet you! Where are you from? Oh, sweet, I’ve never been. You live at the River? Oh man that sucks! Haha.”

In wading through this muck of small talk, I think I’ve indirectly crystalized why friendship is so fantastic: It is natural, automatic and deeply unforced. It is liberation from the uncertainties of pass-bys on the Green or the pain of a Zoom breakout room. It is easy and requires no calculation. It is sincere and genuine, and most importantly, the greetings are something you look forward to.