Ever since I was a teenager and went out on my first proper training cycle (i.e. cycling for the purpose of getting fitter and faster, as opposed to just riding around the neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon for fun), I’ve been intrigued by the way other cyclists and runners respond to being greeted. On that Sunday morning in Cape Town, I was cycling along Newlands Avenue and Rhodes Drive on my way to Constantia and I was surprised by how many fellow cyclists shouted out a greeting or raised a hand as we passed each other. I loved it. It displayed a camaraderie, a shared experience. I remember thinking that I had been given access to a new group and was part of something bigger. It was like a club and all that was required to gain membership was to be outside training.
One recent Sunday afternoon, the weather was perfect for running – sunshine but not too warm. I headed out for a long run and it seemed that everyone in the neighbourhood was out too. There were other runners. There were cyclists and walkers. Just loads of people enjoying the good weather and doing some exercise. This meant that I was greeting quite a lot – a nod of the head, a ‘good morning’, a ‘hi there’ or a wave. What was fascinating was the varied responses. Many people waved or nodded or answered with a verbal greeting of their own. But just as many (maybe more) ignored me, looked the other way, increased their speed or became visibly uncomfortable until I had passed them.
I decided to experiment a little to see if there was a pattern. I varied my greetings:
- Louder or softer verbal greetings
- Verbal combined with a wave or nod
- A big smile combined with verbal and a wave or nod
- A neutral expression combined with verbal and a wave or nod
- Sunglasses on/off
What did I conclude?
- Later in the run, fewer people responded. I was struggling to maintain my pace and feeling quite exhausted. Perhaps physically I just didn’t look like someone people wanted to greet – sweaty and slow. Alternatively, the other early birds were generally happier and more pre-disposed to greeting that the late starters.
- There was a greater likelihood that groups of 2 or more people would respond. Do lone runners feel threatened or unsafe? Do they think that if they respond to a greeting might also be perceived as an invitation to a chat or to become life-long training buddies?
- Although it surprises them initially, the surprise of being greeted loudly seems to make people respond automatically. So saying ‘good morning’ with a bit more strength and volume makes people jump and wave :-).
- People have an amazing capacity for focus under the right conditions. Although I think it’s easier to just nod or wave, there are many others who practice their focus as someone else approaches. I’m not sure what suddenly becomes so interesting on the footpath ahead of them or if they’ve spotted a particularly big carp in the stream alongside, but clearly whatever it is takes all their attention. A loud ‘hello’ doesn’t even break their concentration. Truly astounding and remarkable.
- A smile does help. More people responded to a smile combined with a greeting than a neutral expression.
- Sunglasses also make a difference. If people can see you’re looking at them, they are more likely to respond. Also, many non-greeters and most of the ‘focus-on-the-footpath’ group were wearing sunglasses.
My main takeaway is that I greet automatically and that it bothers me when there is no response. What I’ve decided to do is to continue greeting but to not be bothered when I don’t receive a response. I enjoyed the experimentation and will likely continue that as well. I haven’t given it a try while out on my bike yet. It will be fun to see if I have similar results. So, if you spot a tired, slow guy running or cycling around Dublin, California just smile and wave. He’s harmless.