When I moved to Virginia I had the uncomfortable experience of getting used to strangers looking me. I mean, looking at me straight in the face and even saying hello to me on the street! All the doggone time. It felt like people were “eyeballing” me. And wanting to start up conversations everywhere over nothing. We just don’t do that where I come from- “the North” as they say.
Being a Yankee I had to get used to this. This overt friendliness and smiling EVERYWHERE was a bit disconcerting. Didn’t people have somewhere to go? Didn’t they have things on their minds? These people didn’t even know me! In check out lines at grocery stores, in shops, in restaurants from table to table, it just seemed like a big love fest– I really found the whole thing just a bit alien. People just talking to strangers. Why wouldn’t they just keep to themselves and leave me alone? While walking, I would even go down a side street if I saw someone I felt would come after me. At times, this constant eye contact and chatting made me scared to go out in the street! Besides, it really slowed me down and I felt was an invasion of privacy.
A part of me did find it a funny and unexpected predicament. I just plain wasn’t used to it, having not been through it anywhere that I’ve lived before. And I’ve lived in few places in my day. Growing up in New York City, I was somewhat “trained”: avoid eye contact, look like you have a destination and mind your own business while in public. So the whole transition to this new culture was quite different. Is this what’s meant by southern charm?
So I devised a test just for the heck of it. I would play at their game. I would simply give in and look and say hello to EVERYONE, everywhere. I’d walk out of my apartment onto the crowded pedestrian mall, put on a toothy grin and let the campaign begin. I’m bold enough to do it, no fear here. Well the plan backfired immediately on two counts. First, most folks just continued in their stepfordian ways of eyeballing and engaging me anyway. They’re never to be fended off! I tried to beat them but wasn’t as skilled as them yet. I even added in spontaneous waving here and there to as many as I could, but to no avail. Second, the unexpected happened-I actually started to enjoy it, even look forward to it. I started to stop and began deepening the encounters. I’d see some folks again, and then again. And soon I started to make new friends.
And now here I am, two and a half years later. And I’ve made lots of friends and am settled down. And some are still friends because I said hello first, and made eye contact. Saying hello and making eye contact is just a part of who I am now. I’ve changed over the last couple of years. I guess I’m just like “they” are now. It must be a Southern thing.