A middle-aged male runner was coming toward me, heading the opposite direction. Our eyes met and we greeted each other with a quick, “good morning.” A bit later, a middle-aged man was tending to his flowers a few yards ahead of me. As I ran by, I said good morning and I waved, but he did not wave back. He never looked up from his gardening.
These incidents have repeated themselves over and over the past few months. I’ve logged hundreds of miles on the streets around my house in that time frame and I’ve noticed a pattern. Other runners will return or initiate a greeting almost 100% of the time, with or without direct eye contact. People on bikes will do so only about 80% of the time and people working in their yards will return or initiate a greeting only about 30% of the time.
I have a theory about why this pattern exists. It is based in our individual recognition of community. Other runners and walkers see me as part of their community, so they are eager and willing to engage in the casual greeting, stranger or not. Bikers have their own community and often ride in groups, but we have some overlap as a community of people who are out getting exercise, so they greet me fairly consistently as well, if they’re not head down, pressing toward their own goals, or in conversation with their already established group.
The people who are working in their yards, even though we live in the same community, don’t see me as part of their community. If I’m running, that action seems to signal to them that I may not really be their neighbor. I could be coming from miles away, and so there is no immediate community bond. I say this because if I’m walking, the percentage of people in their yards who initiate or return a greeting increases dramatically. My actions are different, my pace is different, and their response is different. We have more time to recognize each other.
Pace is only part of the issue.
When I was growing up, if you drove down Turner Road in Grafton, WV, literally everyone waved as you passed by. It was rude, and odd, if you didn’t. We’d wave at passing cars we’d never seen before. We’d wave at people we didn’t know. We looked for opportunities to wave. And our behavior was rewarded with a smile and a wave back. Anyone travelling on that road was part of our community, stranger or not.
That was 40 years ago. It’s only partially true today. A Super Walmart was built at the end of Wickwire Road and now Turner Road is a short cut if you’re driving on Route 310 from Fairmont to the megastore. The act of driving down Turner Road no longer signals that you’re part of the community. You may just be someone going to Walmart.
This translates easily to online communities. Every action we take online signals that we’re part of some community. The conversations we participate in, the photos we post, the places we frequent, they all indicate what community or communities we identify with. And by definition, our actions either restrict who we see as part of our community or expand our community boundaries.
I have a lot of real estate friends on Facebook, for example. I often watch them write status update after status update about their business, posting listings and comments about how happy they are to be showing homes or about their most recent sale. Some do a great job of weaving those in and around other more personal and diverse status updates, and some spend the vast majority of their time posting things that could only appeal to the real estate community directly, or to someone who might actively be seeking a home to buy or sell, or to their mom.
And that realization has me asking some questions. What communities do I belong to? What communities do I want to belong to? How do I let them know I’m in their community? How can I do a better job of recognizing others in that community? How can I do a better job of waving to the cars as they pass by?
When I’m running, if I make eye contact with someone, whether they are running, walking, riding a bike, or working in their yard, they are more likely to return a greeting. It’s very hard to ignore someone who is looking you in the eye and saying good morning or waving to you. While it’s easier to ignore someone online, I think the same principle holds true.
How do you make eye contact online?
When I make eye contact while someone is talking with me it says, “I’m listening to you. It’s just you and me in this conversation.” And the key to online eye contact is listening. It’s about talking with someone, not just to someone or at someone. It allows them to understand, clearly, that you recognize that they are there and that you care. I don’t have to initiate a conversation to do that, but I have to be willing to have one.
I’ve written a lot about listening in the past. And, in truth, I often forget its importance online. And I fear that, often, I’m a lot like that guy tending to his flowers as people run by online. They’re waving and saying good morning and I’m not recognizing it. I need to look up more, smile, and say good morning back.