On the Phenomenon of Unknowing

I live part of my time in a small town. More specifically, it’s a town, on an island, known to be rather quirky and unconventional, and very close to a major city (Seattle), but in many ways it functions like any other small town. One of the nice things about small towns, including mine, is that there is a limited cast of characters and you are likely to see them again and again as you go about your day in the various shops and public spaces of the town. While this is generally a cozy thing, it has a drawback which is that sometimes it results in burdensome obligatory conversations that neither party enjoys.

In a mutual effort to spare each other from such awkwardness, certain pairs of people begin to reduce the intensity of their interactions. The first stage is that the two people no longer take time to catch up or swap meaningful observations when they run into each other. Instead they just say “Hi” although maybe with a nice amount of warm enthusiasm, and definitely using each other’s names. Next, names are no longer included in the greetings, possibly because at least one of you has become insecure – you know WHO it is, he’s the guy who played bass at that music jam you were at a few months ago, but you’re afraid that even though it feels like his name is “Robert,” maybe it is really “Richard.” Soon “Hi” gives way to the ritual wordless Hey-Man nod (between men) or the polite smile (between men and women, or  between two women).

The end point of this UNKNOWING process comes when two people encounter each other in public, and no obvious indication is given that they have ever met before, although there may be a ghost trace of the previously more intensive connection evident in the generous efforts each makes to allow the other to proceed unimpeded and without eye contact.

Although the reasons why unknowing occurs are completely understandable, it is also disturbing and somewhat depressing to realize that it happens often enough that I have come up with a word for it.