Off the beat: Learning to saying hello

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SEPTEMBER 20, 2013

Of the approximately 26,000 undergrads at Cal, I’d say I know about 100. I can recall the names of about 150, hold a conversation with 50 easily and hang out regularly with maybe 20. Facebook says I have 178 friends from UC Berkeley. My text messages say I have maybe seven — on a good day. I’m comfortable with this.

Despite these small numbers, I’ve probably met more than 2,000 people at this school. As students, day by day we meet and remeet the people who occupy the apartments, dorm rooms and classrooms around us. Even when we go weeks without running into old roommates or dear friends, the people we’ve met just once for an instant seem to pop up everywhere. How do we deal with these hundreds of acquaintances? When you make eye contact with someone you met five months ago at your friend’s friend’s birthday dinner, do you say hello? Do you say anything?

Meeting people is easy. Meeting them 10 times is hard.

In these awkward settings we confront on a daily basis, it’s usually easier just to take the middle ground. For fear of being forgotten, we opt for reintroductions — silent agreements to forget the couple of stray interactions from the past and start fresh. Or, if we can help it, silent agreements to ignore each other altogether. We’ve all looked down at our phones for minutes on end to avoid eye contact with an acquaintance who simply is not worth an awkward conversation or a pained smile.

The phone, sadly, is not always an option. When social gatherings and actual friends bring us face to face with these acquaintances, it can be frustrating. By the eighth time I’ve met my friend’s roommate’s boyfriend at a party, the shame and injustice of it all is just too much to bear. There’s literally no way he doesn’t know who I am at this point, right?

I don’t know whether this is just a college thing. I’m fairly certain it’s a life-post-middle-school thing, just magnified to the extreme in the collegiate world of awkward, intoxicated social gatherings and constantly changing routines, living places and friend groups. (Worried it was a “just me” thing, I surveyed a few friends — they, too, are reintroduced to familiar faces on a weekly basis.) I also don’t think there’s any easy remedy. But I thought if I could at least acknowledge the awkwardness here, I might assure the socially anxious among us that they’re not alone.

First, there are reintroductions that occur at parties — namely, frat parties. Running from place to place with a few actual friends, pushing your way through crowds of students in big, dirty houses, you’re bound to have some weird conversations. It’s possible to meet more than 30 people on any given night. But does talking to someone for two minutes in a sweaty crowd of people mean you should say hello the next time you see that person in a similar setting? Are you even supposed to remember the name or face? My guess is you’re not.

There are also those times when you see those people from said parties in class, on campus or on the 51B. This is probably the worst. Am I supposed to acknowledge these people when they end up sitting next to me in discussion or in front of me in line at GBC? Ignoring them certainly seems like the best option to me. Either that or an awkward grimace and a head nod — which they may or may not return. You’ll likely meet them again at another party. “Hey, what’s your name?” — and so on and so forth.

Lastly, there’s the encounter with Facebook friends you’ve never met — my personal favorite. I watched the Facebook page set up for my freshman class last fall in horror. Virtual strangers added each other as friends, planning to “meet up for a boba run, lol!” Later in the year, I’d hear friends recount stories of encountering these people in person and choosing to play dumb or ignore them altogether. Here, I have advice. Don’t friend people on Facebook if you’ve never met them. You will see them in person, and it will be uncomfortable. Case in point: UC Berkeley Class of 2017 Facebook page.

Maybe all these scenarios are just a fact of life — after all, who really wants to get to know all the random strangers we bump into on a daily basis? Maybe other people are actually incredibly friendly and open, and I’ve just been socializing in the wrong circles. Or maybe we’re all just really bad at saying hello.

Either way, we all face the decision to ignore or confront people around us every day. Although ignoring is usually the easiest option, especially when you know you’ll inevitably be reintroduced to the acquaintance again, anyway, maybe the best route really is just to grin and bear it. This time, maybe the interaction might just stick.

Contact Libby Rainey at 


SEPTEMBER 20, 2013