For the most part, I am diligent about greeting other people that I pass while on the street or otherwise out and about. It’s not my nature to be extroverted and I certainly don’t exude a gregarious vibe, but this seems to be the polite thing to do. Yet, more and more, I find myself in the position to ask myself: Why do some people refuse to say hi or acknowledge the presence of another human? As an autistic adult—a model specimen of the extent to which people can be introverted and completely uninterested in small talk or interacting with strangers—this social behavior is particularly baffling to me. Within such socially-inept shoes, it’s hard to imagine how someone could be less “friendly” and commit a more fundamental social faux pas. These individuals who seem so committed to ignoring me may also be on the spectrum, but statistically speaking, it’s rather unlikely. I’m also not referring to one-off encounters with random passersby, but rather people I have not formally met but with whom I cross paths habitually over many months. For example, there were three people in my old neighborhood in Connecticut who refused to wave, nod, smile back, or otherwise commit to any semblance of recognizing my presence. I’d pass each of these neighbors individually, nearly every single day (literally over 300 times a year!) on my daily runs or walks while they were also on theirs. Particularly because it was often pre-dawn hours or contending with winter elements, I felt we shared a kinship in addition to the narrow roads.
My first instinct is to also ignore the oncoming pedestrian, but I’ve learned that it’s more socially acceptable and appreciated to greet the other with a simple nod, greeting hand gesture, or vocalized hello, and so I’ve conditioned myself to do so. I also would understand the situation more if I rarely saw these people or if they may not have heard or seen my acknowledgement, but I’m positive they hear and see me, especially because the more times they ignore me, the louder and more dramatic my gestures become. It’s not antagonistic or even necessarily conscious, but it seems to be my desperate attempt to have my friendliness reciprocated. The more I’m ignored, the greater my unconscious drive to convert them into a fellow greeter. With one male runner, my own feeble attempts to crack his icy exterior resulted in embarrassingly animated good mornings that even I tried to stifle. It seemed untamable. A simple smile and nod cascaded over time into a double handed frantic wiper motion and a boisterous “goooood morning!” In hindsight, my overcompensation probably smothered any hope of reciprocity but I not only seemed unable to let go of the fact that he refused to say hi, but I seemed powerless over my escalating response. This pattern played out with the two other avoidant individuals. Eventually, two of them caved: I was able to rouse a little smile and occasional hand raise (without permitting herself to hinge the hand at the wrist to wave) from one woman and the unfriendly runner also would pant out a hi or wave. The other guy was resolute in his refusal.
I think it felt worse and more confusing in this prior neighborhood because I lived in the middle of nowhere and only saw five people regularly on the roads, so to be snuffed by three of them stacked the odds against me and made me feel even weirder. I became the common denominator because what I noticed is that they often said hi to each other or other neighbors who happened to be out in their driveways as these pedestrians passed; the only pedestrian they weren’t talking to was me. It’s not even like my hyperactive gestures preemptively gave away my oddities or social awkwardness. I stuck to one of the routine greetings for at least five months before things turned more severe. That’s some 150 days to establish a basic hello.
Now I live in the center of a busy town. It’s more excusable to ignore a friendly smile or wave and more likely that one is distracted by something else. It still happens here all the time, but I’m less inclined to take it personally. After all, maybe I am the one in the wrong or at least clinging to an extinct practice. Is basic social recognition of another human a dead or dying art? Should I also revert to my comfort zone, the neurological programming installed in my birth to ignore others? It’s easy to uninstall my “updated” program, which tried to emulate the social behavior of greeting someone and run the more compatible initial version. There’s no readily apparent guidebook on this. I even Googled it and came up with nothing. My low self-esteem is inclined to imagine there’s a caveat or asterisk aside wherever such rules are written that says something like “*void if encountering a weirdo or autistic person; they don’t need a hello.” Speaking as one, that should be rewritten if it does exist. Yes, I may naturally prefer to keep entirely to myself, but it’s healthy and fulfilling to feel accepted by others, blend in with the customs, and overcome massively introverted tendencies to politely engage with others.
Of note, I do find people with all types of readily-apparent differences and disabilities seem beyond eager to engage with or glom on to me, and I gladly return the enthusiasm, so I am at least approached by some. Clearly, I’ve got more observing and research to do here.
With sincerity, I’ve been practicing a host of smiles, nods, waves, and hellos in the mirror and aloud to myself at home. I’m trying to figure out if mine are on par with “normal” people’s and how to exude a more naturally-welcoming expression. Of course, with myself as the sole judge, I’m lacking in both the informed and unbiased domains, but it’s a start. The last few walks, I’ve tested my skills on my dog and tried to take note of which ones she seems to interpret as friendlier or more exciting, demonstrated through wagging, eye contact, or even jumping. Unfortunately, she’s also biased and uniformed because she seems to love everything I say to her and is raptured by all hand gestures, but at least it’s comforting to know I’ve got one beating heart that is guaranteed to appreciate my outreach! For now, I’ll continue observing the interactions between others within earshot and eyesight, I’ll practice my own social behavior, further investigate the norms and expectations, and fight my desire to revert back to ignoring everyone until I’m confident that’s the current trend. After all, I truly do want to be camouflaged among the masses as a warm, welcoming, and friendly human being.