On my walk home today I was thinking about the nature of politeness in different social contexts.

In a crowded urban environment, ignoring other people is generally the polite thing to do. There’s so little real privacy, but people extend each other the illusion of privacy, and that helps. You travel through crowded sidewalks and trains in your own little imaginary bubble. And generally the only people who try to pierce the bubble are catcallers, panhandlers, pamphleteers and the like: people whose social advances are an unwelcome imposition.

Of course you acknowledge people who you have real business with, and over time you build up a friendly rapport with the folks at the shops and caf├ęs you frequent. Also your neighbors, which in a true urban core means the apartment-dwellers whose units border yours. The term might extend to everyone on your hallway: it almost certainly doesn’t encompass the entire building. But in general, in public spaces, you respect the imaginary bubbles.

This leads to really interesting effects like the phenomenon of familiar strangers: people you see every day but never speak to. I think it’s also something that feeds into the famous reputation of New Yorkers for rudeness. (Those who visit large cities but aren’t familiar with urban social norms could easily find the we’re-all-politely-ignoring-you thing to be offputting, distant, and cold.)

Oakland is not dense enough for this rule to come into effect. Polite sidewalk interaction in my neighborhood requires a “hello” at minimum, with “how ya doin'” greatly preferred. (Note that there’s no question mark at the end, because it’s a statement, not a question. It is perfectly OK to answer with a matching “How ya doin’.”)

I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to this new norm when we first moved here. There’s an older gentleman who’s usually sitting out on his porch when we walk by after school, and I found myself walking on the other side of the street just because the psychic effort of exchanging a few meaningless pleasantries with a stranger every afternoon felt like a burden. It didn’t work, though. He just hollered across the street: “How ya doin’!”

Today on my walk home from picking up Davy, that gentleman was not on his porch. I wondered where he was—on vacation? Running an errand? I hope he’s not ill. I kind of missed him. On the other hand, there were a couple of people standing around a few houses down, folks I hadn’t seen before. “Good afternoon!” I waved across the street. “How ya doin!”

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