Several years ago, right after moving back to this small city, I was walking down the street when I spotted a strikingly familiar fellow walking toward me. As we got closer, I ran through the possibilities: is he another adult student from one of my classes? Did we go to high school together years ago? Is he a friend-of-a-friend? Is he a friend from my youth, all grown up? Is he a customer of mine at one of my previous jobs, or am I a customer of his?
Of course, I was running through these possible contexts so that I could greet him with the appropriate level of friendliness. Is he a passing acquaintance? Nod and smile or wave, and keep walking. If I’m a customer or client, I’d like to be friendly but still leave him some social space for privacy. But if he’s an old friend, it would be a little aloof to wave and blow on past.
I couldn’t place him, so I gave the tiniest of waves and the mildest of smiles and kept moving. He waved and smiled back.
And when I saw him a few days later, we did the same thing: raise a hand in greeting, give the half-smile, and keep walking. And this is what we did for the next dozen or so meetings: passing on the sidewalk, at the library doors, in the grocery store, wherever. We must have some similarity of schedule and taste because I bump into this guy regularly.
At some point, I noticed that he started looking at me more carefully. He couldn’t figure out where we knew each other from either!
And then I realized: I know his face but he doesn’t know mine. He’s an anchor from the local news. (I don’t have broadcast TV these days, so I haven’t seen him on TV since we started waving at each other. But I’d previously seen him on TV for years, so the face is very familiar.)
The next time I saw him — walking down the library’s long exit ramp while I was walking up the entrance ramp — I suppressed my impulse to raise my hand in greeting. C’mon, I don’t know this guy! And more to the point, he doesn’t know me!
And then he upped the ante: he waved and said “Hello!” And now, every time I see him, he gives me a hearty hello and I give it right back.
And that’s the story of how I accidentally trained a local news anchor to greet a complete stranger.