How do you talk to strangers? What are the rules? Nobody knows. I’m usually happy when a stranger speaks to me, and some strangers are happy when I speak to them, but everybody’s worried: will he think I’m weird? When I say Good morning, do I mumble or enunciate? How big is too big to smile at someone you don’t know?

The other day at the gym I kept catching the eye of a fellow swimmer, a man about my age, both in the pool and in the locker room. I didn’t mean to keep looking his way; you want to be careful about making eye contact in a locker room (although eye-to-eye contact can be safer than eye-to-elsewhere). When he was leaving, he caught my eye again, smiled, and waved. Relief: he didn’t think I was weird, just friendly.

Well, we were both dudes, and both swimming, why not? That’s enough common ground for a wave.

I overheard a conversation once between two (presumably straight) guys about gaydar and how it might work. One said to the other: if you catch another guy’s eyes and he looks just a little too long — you can tell. Ridiculous, or true? Maybe a little true. Most men do avoid each others’ eyes. Is that because they don’t want anybody thinking they’re gay, or for some other reason?

I’ve been getting to know the guys who live next door. The first time we spoke was when I was doing some work on my motorcycle. I think I wrote about this: we ended up killing a fifth of Maker’s between the three of us. Since then we chat occasionally, usually in the hall on the way to our respective apartments; last Sunday I stopped by for brunch; this evening I invited them to watch the game at my place on Sunday.

I know this is nonsense, but I sometimes feel like their amiability isn’t genuine — that they’re too normal, not to mention too good-looking, to really want to spend time with me. The feeling says a lot more about me than it does about them. I used to feel that way even about my friends. I remember that When Sal agreed to go on a road trip after my junior year, I wondered (and, poor guy, I even asked) if he was just being kind to the poor nerd. That was easier for me to believe than that he liked road trips and liked me.

We neurotics — or is that everybody? — go around building things up in our minds, constructing whole narratives out of stray glances and tones of voice, never suspecting that everyone else is every bit as simple and crafty and naive and guileful, as we are. Children afraid of our own shadows.

15 thoughts on “Contact

  1. Kevin

    I’ve found that the more thought I give to those situations, the more awkward and forced it becomes. Which doesn’t make it any easier, as to remind yourself not to give it thought is kind of self-refuting. I guess it helps to think that pretty much everyone has these same doubts, so we should just embrace ourselves in our awkwardness.

    Reply
  2. jp

    Good post, Steve.
    Is it true that real friendships are usually about something, some commonality, or some common way of seeing and experiencing the world?
    This, as opposed to someone wanting a friendship just for the sake of having a friend. In that case, the friendship, at least for one of them, is about the other person, which seems more like the behavior of someone in love.
    Sorry, I’m under the influence of C. S. Lewis (I’m finishing up The Four Loves.)
    I don’t have many male friends, but it’s better that way.

    Reply
  3. Liz

    I have a sign in my office that reads “Don’t believe everything you think.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head in that, for most people, what we are perceiving says more about us than other people. There are just so many different interpretations to situations….which ones we include and exclude says a lot about where our own head is at.

    Reply
  4. anon

    I find all social situations so baffling that I think it’s possible I am on the autism spectrum. But whenever I explain how I feel to one of my (also female) friends, they always claim to feel the exact same way. So I don’t know _what_ to think.

    Reply
  5. Rick

    For some reason, I don’t really have a difficult time with strangers. I’m actually pretty good at first impressions. It’s turning those first impressions into lasting friendships that I’m really bad at.

    Reply
  6. Nayhee

    I’m with Rick. Also, I think there are people who don’t think at all about how they are interacting with others. They just talk, unselfconsciously. I is jealous of that.

    Reply
  7. Kevin

    Nayhee, I have a friend who does that…a little too much. He’ll get to talking and he’ll keep going…and going…and going…

    So it’s finding that happy medium that’s the trick.

    Reply
  8. albert

    Steve, you’re so right, we’re essentially still kids, only trapped in different stages of our childhood. I also feel very awkward with strangers, I feel inferior, or sometines superior on some level be it physical,intellectual or SOCIAL.

    Reply
  9. Victoria

    Hi Steve, I didn’t know how to contact you so am writing this off topic. I think that my 25yo son may be same sex attracted and I don’t know what to say or do. He has female friends but not a girlfriend, he has male friends and is particularly close with one of them. I love him and he loves me and although I could not approve if he was to enter into a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex I would never stop loving him and praying for him. Can you give me some advice please.

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      Victoria,

      I’m glad Victor responded to your comment — sorry to have left you hanging! I never know how to answer this question. But Fr. Harvey is a very good resource. He is orthodox and has a very good understanding of the issue.

      Thanks, Victor.

      SG

      Reply
  10. Talitha

    Oh, the fine tricks to socialization.

    For us Deaf peeps, there’s a side-effect most people don’t realize (though it’s quite funny). As a “People of the Eye,” we’re always very observant of our surroundings, but what does this mean? I’ll give you an example – a fair few times when I was out in a public area, I would be gazing all around, and look friendly (I’ve been told that I have a friendly face).

    Inevitably, a hearing person who had gotten lost or needed help with something, would see me, and zone into me. Why? Because, unlike the other hearing people, my eyes were not downcast; I was looking up, and at people. I looked alert and friendly. Who would you approach for help, a person sulkily staring at the ground, or a person whose head was upheld high and gazing all around?

    Oh, my buddies and I definitely have had this happened to us. It’s always so awkward, and makes me feel a little sad when I had to gently rebuff the person asking me for help, since I couldn’t communicate with them.

    Socialization is always an interesting topic!

    Reply

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