Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hello, Stranger

My recent post about interfering with the Australian family’s bus trip one sodden August afternoon has led me to think, naturally, about my impulse to put myself forward to strangers I meet when I’m out and about. I’ve written here previously about an abortive conversation at a bus stop not long after we moved to Salzburg. There was another awkward encounter shortly after I first arrived in Ireland. I’ve also noticed my impulse to make eye contact, or the need to resist doing so, on the streets or in shops.

In fact, much of this is culturally as well as temperamentally determined. Preparing to move to Austria, I read that the custom here is not to make eye contact or greet people on the street, at least in the normal course of things. And I’ve found this to be true, in general, though occasionally, passing someone in the quiet streets around Katzenstraße, one may exchange a quiet Grüß Gott. Or not. (However, we’ve found when climbing mountain paths, the impulse to exchange greetings, even using the familiar pronoun euch, kicks in. It has to do, we suppose, with the fellowship of outdoors adventures.)

It’s taken some time for me to come to terms with this. It may seem familiar, even rude, to those I meet in shops or on the streets here, but I have trouble not looking into others’ faces, even making eye contact, which, it seems to me, then demands a nod, an acknowledgment, a simple greeting. So I discipline myself.

Bicycling, for example, I approach an oncoming cyclist and I feel my head nearly irresistibly swivel in her direction. My eyes want to slither sideways in their sockets. 'Just a peek!', my instincts cry. I fight the urge, keep my face forward, eyes focussed ahead, and we pass, ignoring one another. Why? It seems a matter of privacy.

As I said, in large part, it’s cultural. In Irish country towns, not only do people greet or acknowledge others on the streets, drivers along country roads lift from the steering wheel, with a certain studied nonchalance, the fingers of one hand in acknowledgment of passing cars. Walkers along the roads stare openly at those in cars that pass. Himself teases me because in our time in the house in Tipperary, I developed the habit of rushing to the window to watch each car that went by. One can’t help but greet others in these circumstances, especially when one is likely to know—even to be related to—most of those one meets.

In America, of course, depending on the city or region, there’s even more openness to strangers. In Ireland, though one may acknowledge others met on the streets, there remains a certain reserve—you could even call it caginess—about how much one reveals in these encounters. Not so in America: There it is common for people thrown into proximity with strangers to share a great deal of information about one’s life, one’s history, or one’s circumstances. Looking back, I’m now astonished at my own past revelations to strangers or near-strangers.

There are historical and cultural reasons for this, certainly. The vastness of unexplored land, the need for strangers to work together to build lives in frontier territories, isolation and loneliness, or perhaps idealism growing out of the American experiment, all combined to turn frankness, sharing of information and trust of others into American virtues. And American are appreciated, I think, for their open friendliness, informality and willingness to make human connections when they travel.

All the same, with some time and distance between America and my current life, I see the American propensity for expedited intimacy and the very desire to form those connections through a different lens. Like looking in the mirror and seeing a self not quite as remembered, I wonder some days just who I am. 

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