It was 7.46 PM on a Thursday evening, and my friend Cherilyn and I were at arguably the best ramen joint in town—Marutama Ramen. I had just drained every last drop of salty-creamy chicken broth from my bowl when I looked up and caught sight of him.
For a split second, I froze—shoulders stiff, eyes wide, like a deer in headlights. Just like that, the warmth of my ramen-filled belly was gone, replaced by a sinking, hollow feeling.
It had been years since I last saw him and here he was in the flesh, just about to enter my favourite restaurant hand in hand with some woman.
Before I could even begin to think about how to react, my brain went on auto-pilot.
The next thing I knew, my phone was in my hand, open to Instagram; my head lowered, shoulders hunched, body angled away from the entrance. For several seconds I stayed like this, in this crouching-coward-hidden-dragon pose until I was sure he had passed and taken a seat.
When the coast was clear, I turned to Cherilyn and said, “We should go. Now.”
As we hastily packed our things, she grumbled that I was acting as if the world would implode if we so much as locked gazes.
It wouldn’t, of course. Still, I had to get the hell out of there.
However, you may not always welcome these surprise encounters, and may even catch yourself doing everything in your power to avoid them.
In the latter case, I’ve often wondered if all the anxiety and subterfuge involved was really necessary. We’re adults after all, not children.
Shouldn’t we be above dodging around corners and running from people we don’t want to speak to?
Shouldn’t we be mature enough to look them in the eyes, smile, wave and get on with life, unaffected?
In a perfect world, yes.
But as my editor says, “More introverted people like myself are not always up for running into acquaintances because I haven’t prepared myself for the interaction. I didn’t go out to meet long lost friends, therefore I’m not meeting them. Not even if I run into them by accident.”
In another instance, a friend shares how he would actively avoid going to the bathroom at the same time as his boss.
Using his keen observational skills, perfected through years of human evolution and hunting prey, he would take note whenever his boss exited the office without a mug in hand.
When he does that, “I know he’s going to the toilet and I’ll wait till he comes back before I go.”
By timing his trips to the toilet such that they don’t coincide with his boss, he successfully avoids the kind of long and awkward conversations that his boss likes to spring on him whenever they’re in the washroom together.
Whether we realise it or not, there are certain situations that just don’t facilitate deep conversations or meaningful catch-up sessions. There’s nothing worse than running into someone you (used to) know when you’re rushing for a train, in the company of another friend, or late to an important meeting, and having to stop for a chat.
Under these circumstances, it’s easier to just stare resolutely ahead and feign ignorance.
Maybe next time, pal.
As luck would have it, she was glued to the Chinese drama playing on her phone and didn’t seem to have noticed me. Unfortunately, the train was also too crowded for me to just slip away quietly, so instead I settled for making myself look as small as possible while praying feverishly for her to vanish.
It was a classic case of ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. We had no painful shared history or whatever, but I wanted to spare myself the emotional inconvenience of “catching up” with someone I hadn’t seen in years.
What do you say when someone asks how your life has been in the 3 years since they saw you? Or when they ask if you’re still working at your previous job? Or when they ask about your then-current-now-ex-ex-boyfriend?
We already know how the conversation is going to go.
“Fine, same-same, like that lor.”
Cue feeling fake and insincere.
I’m not going into the nitty-gritty details of my shitty day or my recent breakup, nor would this long lost friend really care to hear about them.
If we had spoken, it would’ve been more out of formality because social norms dictate that this is what you do when you run into people you know. It’s not about caring or being genuinely interested.
Such encounters are essentially inconsequential. At the end of our train ride together, she would go her way and I would go mine. Our friendship had run its course and this meeting wouldn’t change that.
A friend was once enroute to a cafe when directly across the road from her, she spotted a guy she used to like. Upon making eye contact with him, she turned around, walked back down the road she’d just come from, walked another 3 streets down and then crossed the road further away from the cafe.
“It took me 15 minutes to get to the same spot that would have [originally] taken me 15 seconds.”
Another time, a colleague, after getting rejected by a girl in his class, decided that he would skip that class for the rest of the semester to spare himself the embarrassment of running into her.
While their actions sound extreme, we can all relate to how reminders of the embarrassing things we did—whether ten years or ten weeks ago—have a habit of coming back to haunt us every now and then in the worst possible ways.
As humans, it’s only normal that we be affected by and struggle with letting go of certain kinds of past embarrassments—nevermind that we’re supposedly ‘adults’ and too ‘mature’ for this.
Maybe then, the most painless thing we can do, instead running for cover whenever we come across someone we don’t want to, is to just stop.
Stop feeling obligated to say hi.
Stop thinking you need to try and make an effort to ‘reconnect’.
Stop believing that this one encounter will make or break your entire relationship (or what’s left of it).
Sure, you may feel like an asshole at first, but hey. When you stop to pretend to care about the life of an acquaintance, you’re also being an asshole. A fake one.
But by actively ignoring people who are no longer a part of your life, and who no longer wish to be a part of yours, at least you’re being an asshole who’s real with their feelings and actions.
(And in case you’re wondering, no my colleague didn’t fail his class, he got an A. Go figure.)