Nearly three months has passed since I decided to set up shop in this glorious town. By now, I am fully persuaded that the ‘bubble’ phenomena is true, and not in the slightest an exaggeration.
Before I came, I knew that St Andrews was small. I just didn’t know that my life would consist of wandering around literally three streets, very quickly becoming acquainted with hundreds of people, and not being able to go out without bumping into at least four of them.
Suffice to say, every day involves many different greetings with many different people. In order to avoid a Groundhog Day vibe, it is imperative that these greetings be appropriately dynamic. There is an ideal greeting for each individual one might happen upon – friend, foe, tutor, or person whose foot you stepped on once in the Union – all of which vary widely.
There’s a huge range of choice (‘what’s up’, however, will always create confusion and should almost always be avoided), but generally, a smile is universally applicable to all situations. However, sometimes, something unprecedented happens: my smile is not returned.
Granted, it’s difficult to remain festive for each social encounter you will most likely have on the way home when the essay feedback from your tutor began with ‘unfortunately.’
The realisation that you now really have to do laundry because you quite literally have no pants left will hardly put a massive smile on your face. We’re only human.
However, try as I might to convince myself that you just didn’t see me, when my smile is not returned, I will assume either that a) I have done something grossly injurious to offend you b) my personal appearance has repulsed you in some way or c) you just hate me.
This brings us back the original dilemma, that greeting people in general is a ponderous thing. It seems to be one of those rituals which is both necessary and done on a regular basis, yet is done well by no-one (such as the post-ball walk of shame).
A greeting is the preface to social interaction. A good greeting will relieve all involved, giving whatever interaction that follows an added boost through everyone being that little bit more zen.
As a little girl I used to feel petrified at the thought of greeting any male family friends or even relatives. Even now that I have grown up somewhat and like to think of myself as somewhat socially competent, I still find it hard to embrace the awkwardness of greeting distance family members.
The zone of bodily contact with male acquaintances also remains enigmatic to me. Innumerable times have I ended up in a weird, vice-like hug with a stranger, my head perched uncomfortably on their shoulder as they search for somewhere appropriate to place their hands.
The back seems to be one of those generally accepted non-erotic zones, but it seems not everyone got the memo. Sometimes, confusion will addle the situation; places will be touched, things will be felt, and embarrassment and acute awkwardness will prevail.
The French have it down – two kisses, one on either cheek. Simple. Easy. Chic. Yet to attempt to implement it with a Brit? Disastrous. Despite Britain supposedly having strictly regimented social codes and complex ideals of decorum, we still (unlike the French) have no idea how to respond when confronted with a ‘hugger’.
The handshake seems to universally go down well, but what about the sweaty hand dilemma? Before we go in for a handshake, we must consider the myriad ways we might be received: too forceful and someone might assume we are attempting to be overly dominant – but no one wants the flaccid sardine association that entails a weak handshake.
To confuse an already complex situation, what about the opposite sex? I admit to being floored by the right amount of pressure – never underestimate the power of the handshake – but what is the right amount?.
Humans are egocentric creatures. To an extent we are programmed to be selfish, because we will never escape our own subjective viewpoints; whether we like it or not we are stuck with ourselves indefinitely. Therefore we might as well look after ourselves.
Man is also (Aristotle might remark) a social animal; we are used to living and interacting with others. Couple our social desire to please, with our selfish desire to promote ourselves, and one can begin to understand why we obsess over minutiae such as greetings.
After all, why should anyone return my smile? Ought I not just put my smile out there to be taken or left on a whim? Why should I care if it is returned or not?
That being said, there is something quite lovely about a returned smile. The slow walk across Market Street with the distinct chance of bumping into some familiar, lovely, sea-beaten face is a joy. We shouldn’t question why we should enjoy this social interaction, even if on our worst days the interaction is a chore.
Despite greetings being difficult, and us all having bad days, we should savour those moments of recognition in the street, of everyone we know and will come to know.