In the middle class, reasonably well- heeled Melbourne neighbourhood where I have lived for the last 25 years, I have observed when out walking what I would consider to be somewhat abnormal human behavior in the form of a seeming local autism amongst the humans in the area.
I will describe what happens which has led me to this realisation. Typically, I go out for a walk and in the distance I can see another person approaching on the same footpath. If the person is middle aged, as I am, the inevitable footpath meeting will pan out like this: As we pass one another with less than half a meter between us, I attempt to catch the eye of this passerby in order to make mutual acknowledgement.
A low energy smile, nod or greeting in my opinion would be adequate. In 98/100 cases, I am ignored.
Admittedly, I am talking about people I do not know by name and may not even know by sight, but I still find it abnormal. I would not expect or want to catch anyone’s eye and acknowledge strangers in the busy streets of the city, but in a quiet suburban street where two people are fairly obviously locals and the only people in sight, I think it is strange that they do not acknowledge one another!
Today I even took the risk of smiling at a woman about my age in sun glasses walking in the opposite direction on the footpath directly towards me so that at least I was doing my bit! She completely ignored me walking past not remotely changing her blank expression. She didn’t have a white cane or a dog with her, so I assume she was able to see.
On the same walk, a middle aged couple walked towards me side by side with the male coming straight at me on the same side of the pavement with no apparent inclination at all to give way. I was on my extreme left on the edge so I could not move any further aside. I thought it was really incumbent on him to momentarily move behind his partner as we passed one another so we could all stay on the footpath. I held my ground, keeping to the pavement right on the edge as we got closer. Eventually, at the last second, and looking a bit put out, he moved aside so I was not forced off the pavement. It was as though I was not there until my presence was undeniable!
Younger people in my neighbourhood, display similar behaviours. Here are some examples:
Teenaged school boys walk three abreast on the footpath towards me , completely ignoring me as they approach and making no attempt to make room for me on the footpath. I am forced off the footpath, onto the grass, as uncompromisingly the trio files past. Young joggers, without fail have earphones firmly in place and eyes straight ahead. I wouldn’t expect any acknowledgement, as the act of jogging seems to take all their energy and concentration. If they are over about 25 they look agonized and tortured anyway with the effort
New migrants, noticeably Chinese and Indian, who have moved into the neighbourhood, show similar avoiding behavior to those who seem well entrenched. The newcomers must have learned quickly!! (And perhaps I am a slow learner!)
Today I encountered a Chinese man with a white poodle who looked away as I passed by and 5 minutes later, again did not acknowledge me as he crossed my path close in front of me on his way to water his dog at the drinking fountain. This was in a virtually empty scene where we were the only beings in sight except for a couple of magpies (who had in fact greeted me). I might as well have been a post!
A bit later, I passed a young Chinese woman wheeling a well polished rosy toddler in a stroller. The young mother also studiously avoided any eye contact.
So this inept, constipated, rather autistic social behavior has even spread to new neighbours it seems!
How did it come about? What does it mean?
I imagine that it spreads by someone first being ignored and then repeatedly, so that the smiler or greeter eventually stops the behavior. It takes a little extra energy to greet or even acknowledge another person but the energy expended is returned to you if there is a response, however small and you do not feel depleted. But if you are ignored, the reward is absent and, in BF Skinner terms, the behaviour is “extinguished”! Someone in my area must have started this and it has spread like wildfire! It is de rigeur to ignore one another !
All this may sound as though I am terribly needy or have some awful facial deformity but neither is true. My face is unremarkable, I have family and plenty of friends, and my life does not depend on connecting with strangers in the street. But to me it is a matter of neighbourhood courtesy and good manners.
Greeting or acknowledging a stranger is a contextual thing though. You don’t do it if encounters are terribly frequent but you do if they are infrequent.
For example, if you are driving in the outback in Australia and only encounter another car about every half hour , you wave to acknowledge the other traveler, but you ignore other drivers on a busy highway. If you are in a lift going up 15 levels with one other person, you will probably say “good morning” to that other person or at least meet their eye but if the lift is full and you are going only three levels, you will probably not acknowledge anyone unless you have accidentally trodden on someone’s toe.
Going for a walk in less upwardly aspiring areas of Melbourne to the one I call mine is quite a different experience and there, I don’t seem to be invisible. In the the seaside suburbs, I have noticed that people still meet and greet in what I would call the normal way, with a smile, or “ G’day”, as they pass like ships in the morning or afternoon, acknowledging their common human-ness and maybe even their common Melbourne-ness!