Dear Pepper is a monthly advice-column comic by Liana Finck. If you have questions for Pepper about how to act in difficult situations, please direct them to [email protected] Questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.
Possibly because I’m not the most naturally social person, I️ care a lot about manners.
I️ hold doors open for people. I️ leave the office kitchen as I found it. When I go to a party, I ️bring something.
My problem is that, in one area, I️ can’t help but seem rude. And it’s connected to my shyness—I️ have trouble making eye contact.
Given ideal circumstances, on a nice day, when I’m not worried about anything or rushing somewhere, I️ can look at someone I’m passing in my apartment building or office and smile at them.
In less ideal circumstances, I️ can glance furtively at them and give them what I hope is a nonthreatening nod.
But usually I️ avert my eyes. My shyness, or fear, or whatever it is, drags my gaze down.
This leads me to feel like I’m missing fundamental information about what other people are doing and thinking.
Judging by the way people sometimes react to me, I️ suspect I inadvertently come across terribly.
I’m not sure what I’m asking you for—a pass to act this way, or a nudge to be better, or both?
With a friendly(?) nod,
I’m never exactly sure whether manners exist to help people connect with one another, or as an obscure set of rules to keep some people “in” and others “out.”
I’ve noticed, in the human world, that different groups of people have slightly different sets of manners. There’s the “it’s polite to be fifteen minutes late to a party” crowd, and then there’s the “be exactly on time” crowd. (Not to mention all the very late people.) There are the food sharers (whom I like very much) and the non-sharers. There are the spontaneous hanger-outers and the planners. The texters and the callers. Considering all this variety in human manners, I think it’s disconcerting how many people seem to accept eye contact as standard.
In the world of dogs, eye contact is considered incredibly hostile. I, personally, do everything I can to avoid it. My guess is that if people react angrily to your lack of eye contact, they’re either policy wonks who are looking for petty rule-breakers to be annoyed with, or they’re misinterpreting your lack of eye contact as disinterest or hostility. If the latter, their misinterpretation is not something you can fix, and you shouldn’t fret about it. It’s also possible that you’re more of a dog, like me, and you’re not allowed in the building.
Your letter is as much about overwhelm as it is about manners. You can’t make eye contact when you feel that the world is coming at you through a fire hose. Are you really required to think of others’ feelings at these moments? I believe that you are, but only within reason—don’t yell at anyone, don’t kick anyone. Not making eye contact is fine. That said, sometimes the easiest thing to do with a rule that suits most of the world is to bend yourself to fit it, if you can, rather than pushing back. I might even give eye contact a try myself.
Looking at you, kid,