The art of brief encounters

Illustration: The Saint

It is Monday. You are late to a tutorial and are rushing into town when Market Street suddenly turns into a herd of everyone you have met since arriving here. After fumbling over several hellos, accidentally ignoring a couple friends and physically bumping into a former tutor, you vow never to leave the safety of your room again.

There is no getting away from the fact that St Andrews is a tiny town. While this can lead to many benefits (namely, you are never more than a twenty-minute walk from Janettas), making your way through any of the three major streets can often seem like navigating a social minefield.
Given what a common problem it is to meet people on the street and the innumerable ways that it can become awkward, it is essential to develop coping mechanisms. A friend of mine has been jokingly accused of being famous because she never acknowledges people on the street here in ‘The Bubble’. She explains that: “Coming from [Washington D.C.], you just get used to putting on blinkers” and claims that she actually doesn’t see friends when passing them on the street. Why not embrace this image, put on some dark sunglasses and walk with impunity? Ignorance is, after all, bliss.

But perhaps you do not fancy your chances of pulling off a Kanye West, or are worried you might be too convincing and will find yourself now having to deal with actual paparazzi. For you, I have compiled a quick pedestrian survival guide best put to use in attempt to avoid worst-case scenarios whilst maintaining something akin to dignity:

The procrastinator

The procrastinator will try with impressive persistence and charm to stop you from getting to where you need to go just so he can avoid whatever it is that he is so anxiously anticipating. Meeting such a person on the street is particularly dangerous because coming up with a polite way to leave the conversation is near impossible. The trick with the procrastinator is just never to stop walking so that he cannot delay you for too long. One way to do this without seeming rude is to try for the high five while you are walking. If it goes well, your day is made and the whole street resounds with your victory. And if it goes terribly, you can pretend to be so ashamed that you have to keep walking. Win-win.

The ex

Meeting an ex around town is an inevitable evil and can never be avoided by simply ducking your head or hiding behind your friend. Once you have accepted that the universe is cruel and unfair, move on to the next step: make a plan. You want to keep the encounter as short as possible so avoid open-ended questions. Instead, come up with a question like, “Is your flatmate still stealing your milk?” It is personal yet impersonal, and can be answered quickly. However, more importantly, forget the urge to one-up-ship. Once he or she has answered, say “Glad to hear it” and get out of there.

The forgotten name

The what’s-your-name-again street encounter is easy to manage during Freshers’ Week. Another friend of mine devised the ingenious method of getting people to add themselves on Facebook on her phone whenever she needed a reminder of their names. But now, it is week eight, and it is no longer acceptable to pause awkwardly until the other person gives in and tells you their name in desperation. The best solution I have come across is just to preempt the embarrassment at the beginning and say, “Hi again, I’m X, you might remember me, we met at Y” and hope the gods are kind enough to reveal the forgotten moniker.

The sober meet-up

There is also the dreaded acquaintance-whom-you-met-while- drunk. It is always a game of chance whether or not he will remember you, even if you are sure that you remember him. At the risk of seeming rude or, worse, a sloppy drinker, avoid the awkward dance that is reintroducing yourself to someone you have already met. Déjà vu is always confusing, even whilst sober.

The tourist

Accepting that you will meet tourists on a daily basis is part of living in a place as beautiful as St Andrews. Short of maintaining a permanent frown on your face and hoping they do not approach you, there is not much else that you can do other than be friendly and helpful. If it helps, think of it as penance for all those photos you ruined during Raisin Weekend.

The tutor

Your tutor will turn up at the most inopportune of times, most likely when you are stocking up at Luvians or buying all the discount chocolate after Halloween. However, just as with spiders, it is important to note that they are as scared of you as you are of them. Smile, walk away and do not try to be funny.

The false goodbye

My personal greatest fear is the false goodbye, which is when you make your polite leave only to find yourself walking in the same direction as the person. I will freely admit that I have been known in the past to make as quick an exit as possible from such a situation, even if it will significantly delay me. The more head-on approach of laughing it off and asking where they are going might be the better option. Sometimes it is actually nice to have a walking partner.

The distributor

Passing the union often means walking past the wristband/leaflet distributor and being smooth-talked into buying a ticket to an event you have already bought tickets for or perhaps into joining the army reserves. However, as an entreaty from someone who has first-hand experience in trying to hand out papers to uninterested students, please treat us as people too. Eye contact and a quick “No, thank you” is as graceful a decline as any. In fact, it can make our day. Please try it.

The premature smile

The premature smile occurs when you see someone you know a long way down the path, panic, smile too soon and then stumble over what to do afterwards while you are still walking towards each other. In this one situation, I give you permission to use your phone as a social shield.

The adorable puppy

If you, like me, are missing your dog from back home, walking past the adorable puppy on your way to a lecture can be almost too much to bear. However, most dog owners will be happy to let you pet their dog as long as you ask permission first. A word of warning, though: For some dog walkers this will be the only interaction they have all day, and they may start telling you their life story. So make sure you have time to talk to the owner in return for meeting their dog. Consider it an occupational hazard of being a student-who-misses-her-dog.

The holiday glow

Finally, meet the holidayer. This is someone freshly back from a trip to someplace enviable. Perhaps they have a very noticeable tan or are just that that insufferable person who goes on and on about their holiday for months after it’s happened. Regardless, whatever the circumstances, they want to tell you how it went. My advice to you? Keep it quick, keep it peppy and make sure it is kept anecdotale.


Hopefully these tips will mean the only things you have to worry about when setting out into town are the cobbles. But, if a street encounter still goes awry it is important to remember two things: First, the other person is probably too busy cringing over the memory of saying “You too” a week ago in reply to their waitress telling him to enjoy his meal. Second, at the very least, you now have a great story for Yik Yak.

In fact, keep one additional thing in mind: Unexpectedly running into friends outside the library and avoiding professors in the aisles of Tesco are some of the daily joys of living in a university town. Enjoy them while you still can.



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