Whenever I meet someone on the street, there is a wide array of greetings that I can use. They range from a nod, a simple "hey", or the eyebrow raise, to the stop-and-hug or stop-and-talk. If I pass someone I do not know very well, or perhaps do not know at all, I might give a simple smile or a quick passing "hey." If it is someone I know, and especially if I have not seen them in awhile, they might expect me to stop and talk to them for a bit.
Now, that is all well and good. But from the time you first spot someone, if you are approaching them, you only have a very short time to decide on the proper greeting, possibly as few as two or three seconds. This is where our somewhat instinctive Proper Greeting System (or PGS... not to be confused with GPS) kicks in, or is supposed to anyway. Sometimes it malfunctions, and this can lead to some quite awkward moments.
A real-life example
Here is a situation that happened to me. I was in Food World, walking up the chips and drinks aisle. When I got to the end, I saw a girl who looked very familiar, pushing a cart with a baby in it, in the dairy section. My PGS apparently did not have enough time to assess the situation. So I stopped. Almost instantly, I knew this was a mistake. I could not think of this girl's name, or even how I knew her. So I made small talk. "How are you?" "Is this yours (referring to the baby)?" Finally, I was out of there. I still to this day do not know for sure who she was, just that I recognized her from somewhere.
Aloofness: A good thing
See? In this case, I should have gone with the passing "hey" or a simple smile. Much better to risk someone thinking that you are being unfriendly, than to put yourself into an awkward and uncomfortable situation. So when in doubt, always err on the side of aloofness. Of course, some people force the stop-and-talk, by themselves stopping. It's very difficult to do a passing "hey" when someone else has already stopped for a stop-and-talk.
The problem with the stop-and-talk is that by stopping, you are making a commitment right there of at least fifteen to thirty seconds. You can't just stop, say "hey" and move on. It seems that a few seconds of small talk is required. It would be nice if you could say, "Oh, you know what? I really did not mean to stop. I should have just given you a quick passing "hey" and kept walking. So, I'm really sorry. I'll see ya later."
A new greeting
One happy medium could be found in the increasingly popular slow-down-with-180-degree-turn. This is where you slow down as your reach the person, possibly greet them with a handshake or arm touch, but continue moving the entire time, all the while turning your body to continue facing them. This is a more friendly greeting than the passing "hey" and also gives you a few extra seconds to determine whether or not you want to stop. When you reach the end of your 180-degree-turn, you can then elect to stop and talk or turn and walk away.
Stay tuned for more 21st Century social perplexities and bachelor quandaries...
"Gonna hold who needs holdin', mend what needs mendin', walk what needs walkin', though it means an extra mile. Pray what needs prayin', gonna say what needs sayin', cos we're only here for a little while..."