As I stroll past Montana Hall after class, I notice a student walking my way. As they get closer they look at their shoes and I mysteriously realize how urgently I need to check for any new snapchats on my phone. As we pass each other, the ‘crisis’ is averted and we can relax again. It’s not that I am a shy person or even that I’m terribly awkward with new people, it just seems to be a common situation in the gray areas of social interaction. I cant tell you how many times I held the door for people that look at me like I’m from another planet, or how many times I’ve let it swing shut behind me only to have someone just about walk through the glass when it comes swinging back.
I used to ascribe this to awkwardness, however my perspective shifted this fall when I met Aizada, a grade-school teacher from Kyrgyzstan visiting MSU through the teacher exchange program. We had the opportunity to talk about the many differences between Kyrgyzstan and the States; in doing so I gained a new perspective on the little pieces of life.
Aizada explained to me what appeared to be a lack of social customs in our daily lives. In Kyrgyzstan there is a proper way to enter someone’s home and a common way to show respect to your guest. Most people eat meals the same way, and teachers and elders are always shown courtesy. According to Aizada, these customs provide a common method of doing things, just like rules in a sport, which when followed allow easy collaboration. In the U.S., she explained, there was discomfort in new environments, such as someone’s home. There was lots of standing around waiting, during which both she and the host are uncomfortable. Aizada explained how Kyrgyzstanis of different age groups, or people who have never met, come together and connect. “We all come together and can enjoy each other” she said. With the details of how to interact already addressed and out of the way there is a certain ease that follows, you no-longer have to worry about how to act, you just act.
[pullquote align=”right”]“With the details of how to interact already addressed and out of the way there is a certain ease that follows, you no longer have to worry about how to act, you just act.”[/pullquote]
Social customs often serve needs. A handshake is a sign of good will; a greeting is an acknowledgment and welcomes a person into a setting. Recognizing that customs serve a valid need is step one, but making tired customs common place again is varied and complex. First off, customs chosen must be beneficial and not biased or oppressive. Perhaps the larger challenge is making standard ways of interacting commonplace in an individualistic world.
Widespread adoption of a method for something as personal as how we interact is probably more of a dream than a possibility. Even if it was feasible, it would likely result in the same unfamiliar and awkward air that today surrounds many of our formal interactions today. So is there any realistic approach to making our interactions easier and more authentic? Begin by choosing to stop being afraid of each other. When you have an awkward moment of eye contact, take a moment and say hello. Make it a habit whenever you’re near someone to simply acknowledge they exist. It doesn’t have to be anything more. Who knows? Maybe you’ll start a trend.