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I am an adult male living in the US, in case it matters.

Anyway, there's something I do when walking past people on a (not too busy) sidewalk or in a hallway, where I will make eye contact with them, smile and nod, and then look away. Often, they will do the same. It seems to me like the purpose of this exchange is to reassure the other person that you are friendly and aware enough of your surroundings to not run into them.

I like to perform this exchange whenever the situation occurs. The problem I sometimes run into is not knowing when to try to make eye contact. The way I see it, I can either :

  • not try to make eye contact at all (which would be rude)

  • stare them down until they look at me (which would be creepy/intimidating), or

  • glance at them a couple times and nod if I see them looking back (which is what I do currently).

What I'm wondering is if there's a proper way to handle this. I feel like what I do doesn't work as often as it should, and would like to complete this exchange whenever the other person attempts it (so I don't cause them to run into the same problem).

So, am I doing this right? And/or is there anything I could do to increase the chances of success?

I noticed this question about whether this exchange should happen at all, in this case I'm confident that it should and would like to maximize the chance of success and minimize the chance of discomfort.

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Your method seems about right. Staring at anyone is creepy, and not looking at all prevents you from seeing how they behave.

I would, a few seconds before passing by:

  1. Turn my head (with an obvious motion, to draw attention) in their direction, and look them in the eyes for half a second. This is mainly so they see that you're looking at them. Big, obvious motions are easier to pick up in the peripheral vision.

  2. Look slightly away and down a few degrees, as to not stare at them. Something like shoulder/arm height. You're still close enough to easily see what they do.

  3. If they look up at you, look back and smile at them.

  • I invite you to take the tour and visit our help center to learn more about the site and its guidelines. Good first answer, by the way. :) – NVZ Aug 10 '17 at 22:12
  • 2
    #2 - sorry, but most females are going to think you're staring at their chest and feel very uncomfortable... – corsiKa Nov 16 '17 at 18:11
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Assuming that your question is not specific to the USA -- it is not typical in India, in my experience, to make eye contact with any unknown person when we are 'passing by' on the street or sidewalk. As in, there is no need to do so. This may be a cultural thing, but we tend to ignore anybody we don't know and it is not considered unfriendly or impolite to do so. Looking into the eyes of the oncoming person for a second and looking away is all right but smiling is not typical unless we know the person. Of course, a little allowance is made for national/ regional/ religious holidays!

If you are particular to make eye contact, one 'neutral method' (perhaps already suggested in answers/ comments) would be to look at the person intermittently as you approach (and look away) with a neutral expression, which is sometimes described as a quarter-smile. If the person does not want to reciprocate then they will look away and you can 'cross' without making further eye contact. If the person reciprocates eye contact then you can nod and smile as you pass by!

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A good rule of thumb for a neutral eye contact would be 1/3 to 1/2 second. (By neutral I mean not a prelude for hitting on, begging, making a sale, making a complaint, making a demand, etc.)

The above also works well for flight security/customs inspectors; anything more or less comes across as suspicious. (Disclaimer: I have never tried to get past the above with something I should not have had. But I was pulled over for a more detailed inspection many times until I figured out the above.)

While I'm at it, if you're looking in someone's general direction, and they start looking at you as if to say why are you looking at me, then move your gaze so you're looking directly at them, then after 1/4 second, look away. You'll come across as wondering why they were looking at you rather than you looking at them.

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"Serious face" is also standard in Russia.

Linked article has some comparisons, how smile is associated (or not) with intelligence and/or honesty (or lack of it) in different countries, depending on the country stability and corruption ("uncertainty avoidance") and other factors.

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I am also an adult male living in the US.

It matters on where you are. In large cities, with skyscrapers and bustling traffic, it's best to mind your own business. Granted, if you notice a particular individual often on your regular route, it is definitely OK--especially if they're a fine specimen ;)

Furthermore, when at places like the gym it's generally wise not to pay too much attention on formalities. Yet, that rule-of-thumb can very depending on if it's packed to the gills or bone-dry. That leads into another point: it depends on the type of person. Gym rats are usually happy to be acknowledged--especially if you go further, ask them a technique related question. (And nothing is fixed when tail is in the mix.)

Small towns or in a suburban neighborhood, on the sidewalks with old folks taking a stroll, runners, people walking their iguanas, etc--they will generally look to see if you will say something in passing. (This is the opposite from stone-faced forward-bent city dwellers.) I find that if I wait 'til the last second to nod-wave and say a quick greeting, they often fumble to return acknowledgement, caught off guard. So to avoid that awkward who's-going-first, I usually smile and wave even at distances that may seem a little too far away.


To sum up, (1) location matters (2) setting and busyness has an effect (3) the type of person factors in--especially if they don't look entirely busy (e.g., the gym rats who spend daily gobs of hours pumping dat iron). More importantly, try to observe new places. Take the time. Smell the surroundings. Notice how the people behave.

Wherever you are, it's not rude to avoid making eye contact. If you're passing by one person every week from age 10-70, that's over 3000! People simply don't remember. (Well, unless you cupped your hand over half your face and leaned away as if they had the plague. That would etch a bit of mold on their mind.)

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