If I Walk Onto Your Elevator, Don’t Expect the Nod

The burden of acknowledging strangers sharing your air space

Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images

OOne night at a party recently, I found myself in a conversation that had a familiar, unsettling effect on me. The man I was talking to — like so many strangers, social media commenters, even friends, lovers, and family members before him — left me wondering if I’m a terrible person.

Before it happened, we’d been discussing life in Japan, and how social mores there differ from customs in the Western world. The man had a pet peeve, he said: He couldn’t understand how people can share an elevator without acknowledging each other. A “hello,” or even a slight nod, was better than the rudeness of silence.

And it wasn’t just elevators. As he went on, it became clear that he considered it a cardinal sin to enter any space without acknowledging the people in it. You shouldn’t pass someone in the hallway without some gesture, shouldn’t silently walk by anyone on an empty street. In short, it’s common courtesy to let everyone you see know that you acknowledge them and you’re glad they’re there.

“Isn’t ‘the nod’ a Black thing? Aren’t there enough White people in most Western cities for them to never really feel that alone?”

Even reading this now, your reaction is probably to question him. Why so inflexible? Why so fragile that silence should come as an offense?

Not me. I couldn’t believe my ears — and they’re probably the one thing that’s never caused me a moment of insecurity. Does this prove it? I thought. Am I a terrible person? Most of the time, when I’m in public, I’m either deep in thought, wearing my headphones, or (most likely) both. Is it necessary for me to nod to everyone who passes? And furthermore, isn’t “the nod” a Black thing? Aren’t there enough White people in most Western cities for none of them to ever really feel that alone?

“Sorry, I’m not that guy,” I said once he’d finished. “I’m the one who drives you crazy by not even looking at you.”

I could see the judgment in his eyes. It’s not like I thought we’d become best friends, but I wanted to at least set the ground rules in this initial conversation, just in case I ran into him on the street at a later date and didn’t see him, or didn’t recognize him, or just straight-up ignored him. I’d probably pass him without a word, and it wouldn’t be personal. That’s just what I do. That’s what I thought most people do.

He challenged me: “But doesn’t it always make you feel better when you have a pleasant encounter with a stranger, even if it’s as minor as a nod?”

If I’m near someone I’ll probably never see again, I don’t care what they do, as long as they don’t invade my personal space. Frankly, the less strangers have to say to me, the less I have to say to them. It’s the ideal arrangement.

I can play the social game, but in general, I like to be left alone. One of the reasons I avoid group dinners with mostly strangers is that I hate the moment when I arrive (usually late) and have to meet every single person seated at the table. It’s not like I ever remember more than one name. And that’s just the beginning: When I lived in Buenos Aires a decade ago, I used to have to kiss each person on the cheek, too.

Forced socialization is exhausting. I’d rather just quietly slip into a seat unheralded and strike up a conversation with the person in my immediate vicinity — or not. If I’m meant to meet anyone in that setting, we’ll naturally gravitate toward each other. There’s no need for the host to interrupt the conversations already in progress to announce my arrival. I don’t need all eyes on me, acknowledging me and validating me, to feel alive.

That said, there are exceptions to the rule. Years ago, backstage at Late Night with David Letterman, Sarah Jessica Parker and I walked by one another — and as she passed, she said, “Hello, how are you doing?” It was genuine, lovely; it struck me then as a thoughtful gesture. After that encounter, every time I watched Sex and the City, I always found myself rooting for Carrie Bradshaw, even when she was behaving abominably (as she often did).

One Christmas Day in Buenos Aires, when I was walking home after a morning run, an older woman stopped me and asked for permission to embrace me (without a cheek kiss, gracias a Dios). “Feliz Navidad,” she said before going about her day.

Both were surprising, heartwarming moments. But if everyone went around hugging me and wishing me a Merry Christmas, the effect would eventually be diluted, and I’d probably get seriously annoyed. Those kinds of unexpected gestures made my day, and they were so special, because they were so kind and unexpected.

So if you see me on the street and you feel like nodding, go ahead. I’ll nod right back. But if, like me, you’d rather stay in your own world and get from point A to point B with as little fanfare as possible, that’s okay, too. I promise I won’t think any worse of you. And if you can do the same for me, that’s all the courtesy I need.

Dionne Warwick had it right: Just walk on by.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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