Waving Can Promote Sense of Community

CJ Blair, Columnist

Forty percent of my social interactions are unreciprocated waves.

There are times when I think that I’m the only one who feels this way, but in my second year at Oberlin, I’ve learned that plenty of other people share my uncertainty about waving. College is one of the most ambulatory times in a person’s life, and on a small campus like Oberlin’s, it’s all but certain that students will pass by someone they know on their way to class. When they do, they have the choice of acknowledging or ignoring this person, and the decision they make can demonstrate their uncertainty about how exactly to handle such a brief interaction.

Social interaction has always been a struggle for me, and every time I pass someone I know while walking between classes, I freeze. All of a sudden I find myself straining to decide the best way to acknowledge them, even if I’m good friends with the person. Should I say something? Is waving enough? Will I look like an idiot? These questions may sound meaningless, but passing someone on the sidewalk is one of the few social interactions that is impossible to prepare for, because there’s almost no time to think. You have to pick a path of action and commit.

Because there’s such a small window of time in which to act, some have an automated response they apply no matter whom they pass, which is usually to look down and quicken their step. However, I think the majority of people are more inclined to wave to friends rather than acquaintances. Others, however, might wave to everyone they’ve ever spoken to. Yet another option is deciding to wave or not based on how favorably you view the person and whether you want to affirm or deny an amicable relationship.

This isn’t to say that choosing not to wave means you despise whomever you’re passing, but it does create ambiguity. For every person who thinks not receiving a wave is trivial, I can guarantee there’s another like me who worries about what it could mean, considering that there are a multitude of conclusions that the interaction creates.

Even if there’s little certainty on waving, the truth is that a non-action is the hardest thing to interpret. A wave can feel like a small and inconsequential movement, but just making the effort is a clear sign of friendliness. Part of me believes that Oberlin students don’t wave to people they don’t know because they assume others prefer solitude, or are too cemented in their own friend group to want to talk to anyone else. This is a valid way to think, but then again, when has receiving a friendly wave ever made you feel angry or annoyed?

Personal preference and sociability will always play a role in whether a person waves, but I would ask students who don’t like to wave what they think when someone deliberately avoids eye contact when they pass. It’s a small request and wouldn’t require a paradigm shift, but if Oberlin students lifted their eyes and offered a wave to the people they pass, I guarantee it would make the campus seem more like the community that it is. It requires a leap of faith for the socially inept like me, but by and large, the fear of what might happen is far outweighed by the fact that a wave is an unambiguously friendly gesture — one that can make fewer students feel like they are walking alone.