Back on a campus where I know a lot of people, I find myself disappointingly unfriendly. I don’t think it’s a byproduct of eastern European coldness with strangers, because it’s not that I struggle making small talk with people I don’t know but that I walk past people I do know without saying hello. It’s reciprocal, and something I’ve noticed people in this city doing all my life (so much for the friendly Midwest).
There’s this split-second when we’ve each realized the other is there and know that the other knows we know, and then, usually, we both act like neither of us sees what we both, actually, do, and we walk past each other with eyes straight ahead. And yet, if one of us made the effort to be friendly, the other would be too, so why the coldness? Is it some carry-over from high school that we’ll eventually outgrow, or will we always be so mutually aloof?
Startlingly, I’ve come to accept this social ritual as normal, and what bothers me most as I think about it is that it’s a mutually agreed upon action—each person’s inhospitality is accepted and reciprocated by the other. Reciprocity, in its oldest meaning, is actually the return of “cooperative or altruistic behavior” as the OED has it, so I’m misusing it in this context. But then again, it is oddly cooperative. Both of us cooperates with the other’s decision to pass by without a hello, as if we’ve made a voiceless, eye-contact-less pact.
So I ask myself, what kind of bullshit world am I living in? Reciprocity of surliness? Never mind concern for one another; etymology protests! Lovers of language (and keepers of kindness): we cannot stand for this any more. And to casual acquaintances: next time we meet, be ready for a hearty hello.