Seeing People You Kinda Know in Public: Travel Edition


By Cam Vernali

Unlike clothes or your emo phase in 7th grade (or your emo phase revival in junior year), you can’t grow out of some awkward moments, not matter how hard you try. One of the worst kinds of awkward encounters are when you see someone you kind of know in a completely random place and you are wholly unprepared for that situation. The stakes are raised when you are traveling in a new city and happen to see a faint acquaintance, leaving you in the crosshairs of a potentially life-ruining and frightening social faux-pas.
Now, by “faint acquaintance,” let’s clarify. They are someone who you know well enough to: 1) know what they look like and 2) know what their name is. And that’s it. You may know one from a class, being neighbors, working close to each other or something else similar. But you don’t really “know” them; maybe you two didn’t hit it off, or have your seats aren’t close enough to know each other well or something. The perfect There’s no hard feelings necessarily, but they aren’t your BFF or anyone you would travel to Paris with on your summer-after-senior-year trip.
Now that some vocabulary is established, let’s continue on with our example. Let’s say you are out and about in a place you are visiting. Maybe it’s checking out a beach, or a local juice bar. You are completely engrossed in the immunity smoothie, and then there they are: the faint acquaintance. What was formerly a difficult decision between the goji berries and a kale boost (or perhaps the extra maca root, but it was on the back burner) has now turned into a whole new situation.
At first, you try and catch glances to see if that person is really who you think it is, and not a complete stranger who just bears an unnatural resemblance from afar. This in and of itself is a struggle, since trying to stare down someone who still has a good chance of being a total stranger is a bit dicey. After feeling maybe 90, 95% sure that you have the real McCoy in front of you, it’s time to decide an action.
The thing is, there is no real sure fire way to figure out what action you should do in a situation like this. Should you not acknowledge them and just pretend you didn’t see them? While that eliminates all possible stiff conversations, it may seem rude or standoffish to your faint acquaintance. If you want to seem more friendly, saying a sheepish “hi” is a possibility. However, this opens the door for 1) them not replying, 2) them replying but not having anything to say afterwards and thus letting the “hi” hang in the air awkwardly, or 3) them replying enthusiastically, forcing you to be in a conversation you never anticipated nor wanted.
The fact that you are traveling also adds to the diciness of the situation. You are a fish out of water; you can’t just take the closest Muni as a means of a quick getaway, nor do you most likely not know the neighborhood you are in too well. There’s also a good chance you are in some embarrassing touristy t-shirt you picked up earlier that day because you couldn’t be bothered to put a good look together (you only pull out the good outfits when you know you are going to Instagram a scenic view, with you taking up ⅔ of the scenic view). You are completely alone and reliant on yourself to maneuver through this experience, no escape to a local pretentious free-trade coffee shop to save you now.
Eventually, no matter what course of action you decide to make, the moment is over soon enough; either one or both of you eventually leave, like two ships passing in the night. You catch your breath, gather your things and think over the awkward and unexpected experience you just had.
Even though this has happened to me numerous times, I have yet to find a foolproof way to deal with this. Maybe that’s just how some things are. Not everything out there comes with a learning curve, like parallel parking or dealing with Macs when the spinning rainbow ball appears. Who knows? Maybe awkward encounters are the opposite of a fine wine — something that never gets better with age.