The politics of passing by

The importance of awkward conversation as you cross paths with an acquaintance


Katherine Firsching is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

At a university with over 22,000 students, the world on Grounds should seem massive. I know I don’t know the vast majority of the student body, but every time I strap on my backpack, open my front door and head out to seize another Charlottesville day, I feel like I can never make it from point A to point B without passing at least one familiar face.

Whether it’s that random girl you talked to at the party last weekend or your first-year sociology TA, you never know who you’ll see on your way to or from Grounds — but you’ll almost always see someone. The question becomes, how should you interact?

It’s a scenario we all know too well.

As you make your way out of New Cabell and head towards McCormick Road, you see him approaching. He’s not a close friend, but you’d call him a friend if you were hard-pressed, and he’s making his way down the left part of the sidewalk as you make your way up the right. You make eye contact, but you’re still too far apart to verbalize the recognition, so instead you look at your phones and scroll aimlessly through any available feed. Now you’re close, but you’re almost too close, and you don’t know each other well enough to warrant a cease in movement.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” you say.

“How are you?”


He’s passed before you have the chance to ask him how he is, and now you’re left with the unsettling feeling of unfinished conversation, wondering if you were rude not to inquire back. But that’s just one version of the awkward, patchwork conversations you’ve had in passing a thousand times before.

“What’s up?”

“Hey. What’s up?”

Or if you’re really struggling:


“What’s up?”


In passing, we ask questions that can never be sufficiently answered in the time it takes to graze by one another. If you’re having a bad day when someone asks how you are, you’re not going to say, “Actually I’m not in the best mood right now because I just got my midterm back and I didn’t do so well.” Likewise, when someone asks you what’s up, you’re not really going to explain how you were on your way to pick up your Starbucks mobile order when you realized you left your charger in Wilson.

In the time it takes to walk three strides, we exchange a few empty phrases and continue onwards — any more than a few and you’re screaming across a crowd of people, volunteering the details of your conversation to any ears in a 12-feet radius and probably running into a Pavilion column for not watching where you’re walking. I began to wonder, is it even worth the effort?

As I thought about this question, I vaguely recalled a prompt from the AP Language and Composition exam my junior year of high school. After a quick Google search, I found it.

It reads, “An anthropologist studying first-year students at a university in the United States writes that friendly phrases like ‘How are you?,’ ‘Nice to meet you’ and ‘Let’s get in touch’ communicate politeness rather than literal intent. What, if anything, is the value or function of such polite speech?” The prompt asked us to write a position paper, and though I can’t remember the specifics of my essay, I remember being pro-polite speech — an argument along the lines of, “It’s better to say something than say nothing at all.”

Applying my then-mantra to my college life today where I’m constantly surrounded by people, I realized that it really does feel worse to cross paths with a familiar face and act like strangers. After all, that’s how more periphery acquaintances become expired acquaintances — if I pass my old Watson-Webb hallmate or my discussion section buddy from a few semesters ago enough times without either of us saying hello, pretty soon it will be as though we never knew each other at all. Especially in this digital age, it’s all too easy to look down at a phone to avoid an awkward conversation — the world will only grow smaller as our screens grow larger.

Yes, polite speech in passing by can be uncomfortable, but in a way it keeps us human, even if we answer “What’s up?” with “Good” by accident. In the politics of passing by, I think my junior year of high school self was on to something simple, yet important — it really is better to say something than to say nothing at all.

Katherine Firsching is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

related stories