Small Town Survival Guide: “Close Encounters of the Strange Kind”

The scenario:
You’re walking down the sidewalk. A person walks towards you.
As you pass by, they make eye contact.
They smile. They nod. They say “Hello.” They may or may not throw in a remark like: “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

And if you grew up in the jungle of the city or desolate suburbs, your first thought will be:

What. The. Profanity.

Why is that person smiling at me?
Why did they say hello?
Do I know them? How do I know them? What’s their name?
Do they know that I don’t recognize them? Is there fear showing in my eyes?
WHO ARE YOU RANDOM SMILEY-TALKY STRANGER?

Screenshot from the movie "Psycho" of the screaming woman.

PANIC!

Okay. Calm down. It’s okay.
I CAN MAKE IT THROUGH THIS.

Awkward smile back.
Nod.
Say “hello.
More awkward smiling.
Agree that it’s lovely weather.
Walk on.

Breathe a sigh of relief. You survived.

But continue to be perplexed. You’ll wrack your brain for who in the world that was, where you met them before, whether or not you should have said more because you actually knew them, and if, because you didn’t say more, they will go around to other people and say “Oh so and so was so rude to me and barely acknowledged me on the street, now let us SHUN THEM.

Do not be afraid.
You probably didn’t actually know them.
This isn’t you forgetting a face.
This isn’t your memory screwing up.

City-folk, do not be alarmed.
See, in small towns, people talk to each other. People who don’t even know each other will talk to each other. Exchange pleasantries. Be friendly. To total strangers.

This is a close encounter of the friendly stranger kind.

aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

We come in peace.

Eye contact with random strangers? TOTALLY SOMETHING WE DO HERE.

Sometimes it’s just a passing-by nod that acknowledges to another human being that “Hey, you exist. I exist. Cool.

On the other extreme is when the awkward passing by greeting somehow spirals into a 10 minute conversation, wherein you probably tell your whole life story to said stranger and they give you the hundred year history of whatever location you’re at.

It’s all a little weird at first. Often extremely awkward.

Newcomers unaware of this small town custom will often go through a phase where they attempt to be distracted and avoid initial eye contact and the ensuing four-second conversation.

funny pictures of cats with captionsIf you can just focus on that shiny penny in the gutter, or what’s in the shop window, or the interesting shade of autumn colours, you can pretend that you don’t really “notice” the passerby, thus avoid the whole situation.

But no matter how hard you try, you’ll get caught eventually. Ensnared, even by the minimal “smile and nod” walk by acknowledgement from a complete stranger. You’ll become accustomed to it. You’ll prepare for it every time a stranger approaches. Eventually, you will start to (gasp) initiate the smile-nod-hello. It becomes instinctive.

And before you know it, you’ll become so used to it that when you end up back in the big city, you’ll be that weirdo making eye contact with strangers and making all the city-folk uncomfortable.

Human interaction. Scary stuff.

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