Is Saying Hello a Lost Art?

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.

A Visit

My oldest sister came over today. Even though I’ve moved closer to home, I don’t see her often: she’s busy, I’m anti-social. In fact, when she got here, she commented that she couldn’t remember the last time we hung out alone. I was hoping that my nervousness was not as palpable as it felt. I guess that’s one of the weird things about me—perhaps it’s an autism thing—nervousness to see my own sister. She’s known me my whole life, yet my own social anxiety is so crippling that I fear seeing her. It’s also likely a product of times in my life I have been judged or teased, even bullied, and certainly made to feel even more different than I am by other people. Even though she’s family and I’m confident she wouldn’t treat me that way, I have trouble separating fears induced by past experiences in disastrous social situations over likely safe, and even pleasant new ones. This is another instance where I often let self-limiting anxieties hinder my happiness. Not only do I end up missing out on a source of love and joy, but it’s also unfair to wrongfully project the behavior of behavior of a handful of spiteful people onto my notions of everyone.

I think one of the special qualities about family members or true friends that you don’t have to “do” anything when you spend time with one another. Because I am basically immobile with my fracture and carry all sorts of limitations normally, ranging from severe food allergies to sensory challenges, there isn’t much I can do right now anyway. Ashleigh didn’t care. She didn’t pressure me to go out, provide any sort of entertainment, or make me feel like I was boring her to death. She just sat and talked with me, asked how she could help, tidied up my messes and mishaps, made me laugh, and distracted me from the loneliness and pains I’m going through. She regaled me with humorous bits from our favorite shows and talked to me like an equal, not a little sister.

Ashleigh has her own challenges and doesn’t claim to know how to help me with mine, but we seem to have a tacit understanding that we’ve got each other’s backs and admire the courage and strength that we both engage against the struggles we face, including the necessarily hard work of self-improvement and self-understanding. I look at her and see someone who is quite different than me, but also someone who, just like when I was young, I aspire to be more alike. Especially over the past couple of years, she embodies such grace, such resilience, and such clemency.

Even though she didn’t stay long, it was a bright spot in my day and a welcome break from work and even from my usual routine that I so tightly cling to. When I was talking with my husband after she left, he asked how the visit went. I caught myself saying, “surprisingly well.” Again, reminding me that I had the preconceived notion or fear that it likely wouldn’t. He asked me why I thought it went well or what I liked about it. All I replied was: I felt like I had a real friend.

Takeoff

Yesterday my mom visited with my nephew who is just two weeks shy of his first birthday. My mom forms one of the three vertices of my triangular support system. In fact, we talk every day and those conversations (which are always the real stuff of life and not just about the weather) are often a highlight of my day! She’s also my dog’s favorite person in the world: one mention of the word “grandma” and she starts cocking her head to hear more and whimpering in excitement. String together “grandma coming” and you’ve got a full-on frenzy of jumping, sneezing (her excitement reaction), and whining. I’m somewhat the same way, albeit with a bit more of a muted and controlled reaction.

Though she always makes me feel better, I push my mom (and others) away when I’m at my very lowest. I tell her not to come, I cancel plans, and while I keep up the daily phone calls, I keep them brief and more impersonal than our normal deep talks. Part of this is the social challenges of autism intensified by the depression, which makes the mental picture of entertaining “company” completely exhausting and unappealing. As depression zaps my energy even more than it is already usually taxed with SPD, this becomes an insurmountable ask. Secondly, it’s self-preservation. Such a deep state of depression feels shameful and I want to hide from those I love so they don’t see how much I’m struggling. It’s too tiring to cover it up and pretend to be “fine” and it’s too embarrassing to be real and authentically express my emotional pain. With that said, ultimately, it’s self-sabotage. By avoiding my mom (or others), I’m denying myself the opportunity to get help with my problems, to talk and spend time with someone who not only loves me unconditionally, but is an amazing listener and resource. I wish I didn’t do it and even when I cancel plans, it sends me deeper into despair and I immediately regret the decision and start crying. I’m crazy!

My nephew is a real charmer and my sister and brother-in-law have done an amazing job raising him so far and he is their first. The kid exudes happiness and wonder like nothing I’ve ever seen. He approaches everything with a smile so big and unwavering that it looks like his happy cheeks will topple him over they are so bright and expressive. There’s something about young children that’s always been reassuring and soothing to me.

For instance, I used to be so fearful of airplanes that I chose not to travel when certain opportunities presented themselves. When I did fly, my phobia was so debilitating that I’d break into a panic attack as soon as we pushed back from the gate and started taxiing toward the runway. Even though a space shuttle and an airplane are quite different, after watching a video of the 1986 spaceship challenger’s launch, I could not separate the vision of the plane blowing up in flames at takeoff. Flying is also a sensory nightmare. The rumbling engines, the hissing cabin air, the sudden lowering or raising of the wheels that make an audible and perceptible clunk, the stuffiness, the inability to move freely, the ear pressure, the nauseating sensation of changing directions or altitude quickly, turbulence, and the inability to regulate your own temperature easily are just a few of the flying challenges that are particularly exacerbated for those with SPD. Those, I can manage a bit now like anyone else. The crippling fear the plane was going to be engulfed in flames? I got over it. I’m not afraid at all anymore. I just started watching young kids around me on the plane. Although most people hate being seated near a toddler or small child because of the inevitable crying, I hoped for those spots. Watching children’s reactions during takeoff calmed me. Babies rarely cared. Toddlers went along playing and were blind to the fact that the engines were roaring, our altitude was rapidly changing, and that stomach-turning feeling of lifting off was upon us. Even more, young kids excitedly pointed out the window, shrieked with glee, or clapped. The naivety of children is refreshing and can be reassuring for someone who is constantly fighting the chokehold of anxiety. Their ignorance is bliss, even for me.

A parallel can be drawn between the reassurance I felt on planes with children and the power of my nephew’s awe, enthusiasm, and undeniable joy to elevate my mood and reestablish some pleasure in the simple things around me. It was impossible to not smile while watching Eamonn (my nephew) totter around stumbling towards things with such palpable exuberance. A stick. The arm of a chair. An old plastic cup. His favorite, of course, the dog. How thrilling!

Even though social interactions are exhausting for me even when I’m not depressed, they come with an inherently wonderful tradeoff: they are able to refill the tank. When they left, I felt a familiar sadness creep back over me. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because it meant that I was afforded a pause from such pain while in their company and some of that goodness and love lingered with me even after they were gone, bringing my baseline up. My takeaway for myself on this one is two-fold: don’t hide from those that love you just because you’re too depressed to be social (it’s worth the effort and transparency) and approach the little things with joy and wonder because life looks even more beautiful and less hostile with those glasses.