Welcome to For Your Consideration, a new series about things we love and love to do — and we’d like to give you permission to embrace your authentic self and love them too.
In this iteration of FYC, some names have been changed.
In my eighth grade civics and economics class, we had to do a project where we were coupled up with a partner and both of us were randomly assigned occupations and salaries. With our partner, we had to come up with a household budget and were graded based on our ability to construct a believable cost of living and accrue savings. I was partnered with Jessica Walden.
Always the overachiever, I wanted to save as much money as possible even though Jessica and I both ended up with high-earning professions: she was a doctor, and I was a stockbroker (lol). As a way to save extra fake money, I humbly suggested that we buy just one fake car and carpool to our fake jobs together. Jessica turned me down. “It’s not realistic,” she said. And our teacher agreed with her! For reasons unbeknownst to me at the time, I cried. Reader, you and present-day me know exactly why I had such a strong emotional reaction. This was one of my earliest experiences of lesbian heartbreak. Sure, Jessica and my life together was all pretend, but I was very invested in that pretend life together. Why couldn’t we share a car? In fact, why couldn’t we save even more money and just get a one bedroom apartment together?
I had more or less forgotten about this eighth grade civics and economics class drama until years later when I was scheduled to have an interview with a very famous actress and was waiting to be connected by her assistant. “Um, this is awkward,” the assistant started, “but I saw your name on the schedule, and I’m not sure if you remember me but it’s Jessica Walden from middle school.”
I am happy to report that I actually played it pretty cool. “Jessica! Hi!” I said, ignoring the floodgates that had just opened to my memories of being an extremely closeted and repressed eighth grader who was capable of having her heart broken over a civics and economics project.
But something strange happened after that initial brief reconnection with Jessica Walden, which happened when she was living in New York and I lived in Chicago. I moved to Brooklyn shortly after and suddenly started seeing her… EVERYWHERE. First, we walked past each other on a street near my apartment. I was running late to wherever I was going, and we did the awkward “oh hey! Hi! Wow! Weird!” interaction as I speed-walked through an intersection. A couple weeks later, I saw her sitting in the window of a restaurant in my neighborhood where I often go for happy hour or brunch, and we again made direct eye contact and had to go through the awkward, rushed, ultimately meaningless five seconds of interaction again.
So when I saw her getting off a train at the West 4th Street station one night, I just… turned around and walked away without saying hi, without so much as a wave. I’m pretty sure she didn’t see me at all, but even if she did, would she care about my reaction? I suppose some people would take it personally. And my mother would think it was the rudest thing in the world.
In fact, on another occasion, I was just minding my business picking up a to-go order from my go-to Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood when I spotted two other girls I had gone to middle school with — one had even been a very close friend back then. The two were best friends then, and they appeared to be best friends now. They also looked… exactly the same as they used to, their hair in the same blonde ponytails. Did I look the same to them? I couldn’t possibly. I felt knocked out of time and space, and I grabbed my food and got the fuck out. I don’t know what compelled me to tell my mom about the encounter, but I did, and when she asked if I said hi and I said no, she was incredulous. “I taught you better than that!”
But if so much as seeing those two girls was enough to stoke my anxiety, what exactly would saying hi have done? What exactly did I owe them, who at one point in time knew me but a completely different version of me — namely, a straight version of me? People come in and out of your life constantly, and some leave dramatically but others just… fade away. What could we possibly have to talk about now? What would an awkward, rushed, ultimately meaningless five seconds of interaction really do for anyone?
There are the obvious people to avoid: people who hurt you in more profound or ongoing ways than just saying they wouldn’t go in on an imaginary car with you for your imaginary life together. I almost got hit by a car the last time I saw one of my exes from a distance which is, according to Riese, queer culture. There are also obvious people you should say hi to, like, actual friends (although there are admittedly times when I even avoid friends before they get a chance to spot me, because sometimes I just don’t want to talk to anyone, and you know what, that’s fine, too). Or crushes! Say hi to your crushes!
But those people who fall somewhere in between? Ask yourself: Am I saying hi out of cultural obligation/because my mom instilled in me that saying hi to everyone you’ve ever met in your life is what you’re supposed to do to be an upstanding member of society? Or am I saying hi because I actually want to say hi and possibly want to reconnect with this person?
Personally, I’m especially sensitive about running into people from middle school and high school when I was so very deeply closeted. I went through so many phases, trying on different personalities to compensate for the fact that I had no idea who I was, that there are people from back then who I felt close with and who felt close with me but that Me is so distant, so different, so performative in a lot of ways that they didn’t know my authentic self — because I didn’t know my authentic self! So when I see someone from that time in life, I panic. I feel, quite literally, knocked out of time and space as with the girls in the Mexican restaurant. Have I been working on all this shit in therapy? Absolutely, pals. But I maintain that avoiding/ignoring someone from your past doesn’t always have to be a hostile act.
Is it cold to ignore or avoid someone from your past when you cross paths? Maybe! Does it also often feel a whole lot better than engaging? Hell yeah! If you don’t already practice the art of pretending-to-look-at-your-phone when you see someone you sorta know across the street (or literally in your therapist’s office which happened to me THIS WEEK), give it a try. It brings the same kind of satisfaction as an Irish Goodbye. Because really it just sort of feels… like nothing, rarely causing actual harm.
There are some people, it seems, who have the complete opposite approach in these situations, who will not only wave from a distance but cross the street to talk to you, who will not only say hi and briefly catch up but also immediately start rehashing the past, will ask for your number so you can reconnect. But if you both had a desire to reconnect wouldn’t it… have happened before a chance encounter?
On another unfortunate subway station encounter, someone ran up to me. I removed my earphones, thinking it was just a tourist who needed directions. But after a few seconds of confusion, I realized it was an old high school friend I hadn’t seen… since graduating high school. We were, of course, getting on the same train, heading in the same direction so not only did I have to go through the motions of the initial run-in, but it had to drag out for another… 30 minutes. In my dumb attempt to make small talk, I asked if she remembered working on the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s when we went through a phase where you were really mean to me.”
WHAT! She drops that bomb and we still have like four or five more stops on this goddamn train together?! “Sorry!” I said. Because what else could I say? I remembered, suddenly, exactly what she was talking about. I had in fact been a bit cruel to her because she had been chosen as stage manager for the production and I was relegated to assistant stage manager (gotta love performing arts high school drama!). As a result, I undermined her authority and was, admittedly, a very bad assistant stage manager, making it known the whole time that I wanted her job and thought I could do it better.
I’m, of course, not proud of this behavior. But I was also a ridiculous power-trippy high schooler who hated coming in second place. And it would be one thing if she had brought this incident up as a joke or something for us to laugh about, but that was Not The Vibe. She wanted to rehash the past on this express ride into Manhattan, eight years after the fact. Look, I’m not shitting on rehashing the past. I do it every time I write an essay… LIKE THIS ONE! But there is a time and there is a place. And I realize it’s selfish, but I wish so badly that she had just seen me and walked away. Or maybe waved from a very far distance and left it at that. Maybe it did do something for her to have this talk, but I find that hard to believe. I think it just made us both feel awkward and sad. And we both said we should get drinks some time but also both knew we wouldn’t.
As someone with very poor eyesight I constantly ignore people I think I recognize because it would take me too long to verify that they are who I think they are. Even if I would actually like to say hi, I just never do it. Which is… Freeing! Sometimes I feel bad but often I just feel relieved. You’re right that saying hi is usually just a cultural obligation, I’m going to think about that more. Better to save up your energy for saying hi to the people you really want to talk to because honestly that’s exhausting enough.
Hi there, I also have very poor site. I find it very often I really want to say hi to people, especially since lately and feeling very alone. However when people talk to me and I don’t recognize them it feels very awkward. I constantly need to remind people to please identify themselves byname. This gets very tiring after a while so I often Land myself in the same position as you
This is precisely why I left the country the moment I graduated high school.
Okay, maybe not quite, but there are few things I hate so much as minding my own business and suddenly tripping over my own past. I’ve worked hard to overcome much of my perfectionism, but it still makes me existentially uncomfortable when other people still have some outdated version of me in their heads, with all of the original flaws and no interest in getting that shit updated or even patched. Living in a different country now allows me to no longer have to work so hard to pretend not to see or not to recognise people. I feel for you, Kayla!
Kayla, I could read about your childhood/school memories for hours. My new favourite thing on the Internet.
Also, I absolutely agree with this FYC and feel vindicated to not greet middle school aquaintances who I’d/ who had made me cry.
Fun fact: while the invisibility of disability can be a massive bummer sometimes, it works GREAT for avoiding interaction like this! The other day I passed right by two colleagues in Trader Joes in one of their mobility carts and neither recognized me. One even commented on my shoes – to the people she was with, not to me. While that kind of thing can really piss me off sometimes, it made ignoring them very easy for me, and I was thrilled.
I love your articles, I’m sure you have heard me tell you that a few dozen times already. Anyways I can relate to this. As a trans woman, I have no interest in talking to people who knew me back then. Guess what folks? You didn’t actually know me. Anyways thanks again for everything that you write.
15 minutes after reading this article I crossed paths with someone from my high school life at the Post Office. How timely! It was indeed both brief and awkward.
Last year I saw a girl I’d been friends with when I was 11 as I was getting onto a train and managed to ignore her for an entire hour-long journey while she was stood behind me in the train carriage.
Luckily my sister was with me so I could focus on talking to her and also try to steer the conversation to topics that made me sound cool and successful (the girl I was aggressively ignoring semi dumped me for cooler friends, while I dumped her for nicer friends…I’m not bitter about it…)
this happened to me recently! i was in my hometown and at the grocery store with my mom and i recognized an old elementary school friend. i wasn’t sure if she recognized me so i just moved on and didn’t say hi and then later she was right behind my mom and i at the checkout counter! and i was like embarrassed because again i wasn’t sure if we were both just ignoring each other. it was weird because i have fond memories of her and going to her house to play and one time she was the only friend that came to my birthday party :( it was fine, i survived and when i got to the car, i immediately looked her up on facebook and i found her and she had a husband and was pregnant and i was like oh yeah that would’ve been kinda awkward to rehash my whole life like i’m gay now, i’m getting gay married soon and that’s why i’m home right now. so yes, you’re right, it’s better to just continue strolling along!
ah yes I too do the look-up-on-facebook-immediately-after move
Needed this. As a big political organizer in a small pond, i’m often on edge about running into people and expecting to be pressured into work talk/ do emotional labor when i’m just trying to have a night out!
Never has an Autostraddle post been so perfectly timed to coincide with an ongoing issue in my life.
Thanks for the advice, Kayla.
I don’t talk to people i used to know in public unless they say hi first. I think it’s almost always the right thing to do for everybody involved. Plus i feel like i have to balance out my mom, who DOES approach everybody i ever went to school with. A couple years ago she called me like “Guess who I just ran into!” and then proceeded to put a girl i went to elementary school with on the phone with me. I was like “I hope you’re well, and I am so sorry this is happening to you right now!”
oh no your mom made you TALK TO HER ON THE PHONE? one time i ran into a guy i was friends with in PRESCHOOL and his mom and his mom MADE ME HUG HIM!!! WHY?!
It’s not about childhood friends, but yesterday in the elevator I straight up ignored a former colleague who would stare at my breasts in meetings. It was extraordinarily satisfying not to talk to him, and because it was obvious that’s what I was doing.
But I used to say hi to him because that’s what we’re supposed to do – and I like your framing Kayla of asking ourselves why we say hi to some people, and whether we really have to.
I think I recently saw a high school acquaintance at goodwill, but I was honestly too stoked about the bookshelf I found for my overflow of books, that I couldn’t be bothered to even think about saying hi or not.
One of the most satisfying things of when I used to see my old terrible roommates around town was clearly not making eye contact and ignoring them on purpose. I’m rarely spiteful but it felt so good in this case.
This was a great read to see what others do when they are in the same area a former classmate(s) is at. I think for me it’s a bit different because I’d as trans(a tad scared to start estrogen for various reasons) and worry about not being understood.
I think my most awkward interaction was with a guy I went to middle and high school who kind of was a wannabe white thug(think rich white boys in a nice area with knives and bats starting fights for parental attention). About a decade ago I saw him at a small party after he got assaulted on a reality show by a then famous mtv reality star(he started it). Didn’t really speak to him as all I wanted to ask him was how setup was the fight. Every time I see him that thought crosses my mind.
Unfortunately for me I live in the same city I grew up in so it’s not uncommon to run into someone I went to school or one of their parents. I hate running into them because it’s always this awkward small talk. School was a pretty miserable time for me so when I run into someone I went to school with who was awful to me suddenly it’s as if they’ve forgotten the past. Sometimes I want to be mean and awful and say Don’t you remember how bad you treated me in school? But other times I just think it’s better to keep my mouth shut. But I always tend to lie and say I’m in a hurry so I can get out fast!
I love this column.
I literally had this exact conversation at lunch today with a few of my colleagues. My boss and I (she’s also queer, and awesome) were on the same page that we NEVER talk to people we know and in fact go out of our way to avoid them, while another coworker (who’s straight) said she’d always approach people because she felt it would be rude otherwise.
From this extremely limited sample size, I’ve concluded that straight folks may do this because it’s a cultural norm/that’s how they were raised/they don’t want to be rude. But queer folks, on the other hand, don’t give a fuck about cultural norms, and feel comfortable bucking them in order to feel more comfortabel. Also, we’re more likely to have more negative feelings surrounding people from our past, which probably doesn’t help either.
Anyways, I’m on your side Kayla. As long as no one sees you actively avoiding them, where’s the harm? It’s better for everyone involved to get out of those few painful minutes of meaningless small talk.
excellent + highly agree
Oops, it seems like everybody hates this and I do it all the time. I do it more in my 30s, now that I am more comfortable being out and with the way my life is. I am now more genuinly interested in how those people are. In my 20s I worried about coming out, if they looked down on my job, if they would notice I had reinvented myself, if this reinventing was even allowed. Now I just assume everyone is completely different from who they were in high school so I engage in conversation to find out. But I also think ignoring or a super short hi is fine if for whatever reason your not in the mood to talk.
my comment didn’t submit the first time BUT KAYLA YES this happened to me four days ago and my best friend, being the ride or die that she is, hid me from view and was fully prepared to create the most ridiculous semi-plausible lies to get us out asap
Why are moms like that? I remember even in elementary school when we would see a classmate of mine she would always force me to say hi, even if it was just a random classmate who I wasn’t actually friends with. THIS IS WHY I HAVE ANXIETY, MOM!
Nowadays, I sometimes wish I would run into some people from my high school just so I can show them “I’m gay as hell and happy now, so fuck you!” I have the devious desire to do what they are all so afraid of and “shove it in their face”. Does this make me a bad person?