The Woman on the Bike

Image by godber

I see her every time I run.

While on the homestretch of my workout, I see the woman on the bike approaching from the other direction.  Sometimes I even hear her before I see her, the sound of her slender wheels cutting through the water on the trail announcing her approach.  Her chin-length hair curls out from under her olive green newsboy cap.  She hunches over the handle bars, her over-sized t-shirt billowing around her small frame as she pedals.  Two large saddlebags hang over her rear wheel.

She never looks up, keeps her eyes trained on the trail ahead of her.  She doesn’t listen to music, doesn’t gaze out at the cornfields on her left or the changing foliage on her right.  She looks straight ahead.

The first time I saw her, I turned and smiled and called out my standard “Good morning!”  She did look at me that time, but didn’t return the greeting, just turned back to the trail and pedaled on down the road.

Like me, most of the other folks on the trail – runners, joggers, walkers, parents with strollers – look up when they pass a fellow traveler and offer their own form of greeting: a smile, a nod, a cheery “Chilly out this morning!”

But she never does.  Even if she and I are the only people anywhere in sight, she keeps her eyes focused ahead and speeds past me as though I am nothing more than a deer in the woods or the bark on the tree.

And for some reason I take this personally.  I decide that she’s rude.  Or odd.  Or antisocial.  That she has an attitude problem.

I don’t stop to think about why she doesn’t smile.  Or even make eye contact.  What might be weighing down her shoulders, what load she is carrying in those saddlebags.  Maybe she just wants to be left alone.  Maybe she wants this chance to work out a problem in her head with only the trees and squirrels for company.  Maybe she is biking toward something she’d rather be headed away from.

Are you the kind of person who makes eye contact and smiles at passersby?  What do you think this tendency says about you?

Do you ever make up back stories for strangers?

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59 responses to “The Woman on the Bike

  1. A woman with her children pass me and my children each day as I walk them to school. She could be my twin, and I have long coveted her super-cute haircut. We have been passing one another for years, and she has never, ever smiled or acknowledged that we do in fact “know” each other.

    I say hello to everybody. Everybody. So for years I tried to catch her eye, to precisely no avail.

    At first I took in a middle-school sort of way, thinking that because she has the cuter haircut, she felt herself to be superior to me. Now I have decided she’s probably just French.

  2. Ha! I would have the same reaction–take it personally. Maybe because like you, the area I live in is chock full of cheery, friendly people who are all in favor of the chirpy, “Good Morning!”

    But your description of her is so vivid that I wonder about her. What’s she thinking, eh?

  3. Ha ha Launa! My first thought was that this cyclist is probably German. Or counting something. Or has terrible vision (but then, she really shouldn’t be riding a bike on a trail, now should she?)

    I will often say hello to passers-by, but can’t say that I always do so. There are so many factors- location, my mood, my assumption of his/her mood, etc…. that influence my decision to utter those two syllables. Not sure why I make it so complicated. Sometimes I just smile.

    (Now in Germany– you MUST say hello in a doctor’s office waiting room or elevator- why is this?)

  4. I grew up in a small town, where everyone always smiled and said hello. When I moved to a small city, where sometimes even friends wouldn’t take the two seconds to return a cheery greeting, and more, almost considered that friendly “good morning” rude, like you were somehow stealing their personal time, I’ve learned to be more cautious.

    And sometimes I just go ahead and am friendly anyway, and if you don’t like it, too bad!

  5. I am sad when I read these words. I wonder why? Am I sad because I have been the woman on the bike lost in my own world afraid to reach out, unable to connect? Yes, sometimes. I have also been the woman on the bike eager to be left alone. My life is full of social-ness and my time in the woods are the few moments alone I get. It bothers me to be misunderstood simply because I want to be alone.

    I’ve also been the one reaching out, taking it personally when someone doesn’t smile back. I feel rejected.

    What business is it of mine to be so wrapped up in all of these musings? Mine is to enjoy the leaves, the slush of the puddles, the smell of the air, crisp or heavy and indulge in the walk of my own. I have let many walks get away from me wondering about others. I want to remember to enjoy the ground under my own feet.

    Thank you for this little reminder….which makes me…happy.

  6. Yes – I always attempt eye contact and a smile, or a brief hello. There’s a man in our neighborhood who I have passed once or twice a day for almost four years. He makes eye contact occasionally, but more often he keeps his head down. I make up stories about him all the time. He’s not exactly unfriendly, but he is distant. Our neighborhood is very social, so I imagine he just doesn’t want to get stuck chatting.

    I think a lot about how we have no idea what’s going on inside, what other people are dealing with. When I come across rude or distant people, I try to remember that while yes, it’s possible they’re just nutty, it’s more likely they are trying to work through something or are dealing with some stress.

  7. Often in running magazine columns, this subject comes up. And there seems to be no clear reason why some of us will make eye contact, wave, offer a cheery hello while others of us will avoid eye contact, duck our head, and remain silent. As a runner of many years and in many places, I have encountered both kinds of people and those who fall somewhere in between: a slight wave or a nod of the head. I myself have been both, depending on the type of run that I am having that day. I can’t say that I always want to be cheery to other walkers and runners, but I also can say that I am sometimes hurt by those who don’t return my happy hello that day. Now, there is a contradiction (back to your previous blog) within me. Most often, I fall somewhere in the middle — just friendly enough — and then I continue on with my run, barely remembering that I encountered another person in the early morning hours of the day and enjoying the silence of my time alone.

    In another blog, you asked for jogging stroller recommendations. Well, I have the Baby Jogger, which has been great. But if you can run without baby, that’s even better. I have been trying to do so with the second baby since it’s the only time in the day that I have to myself. And it has been wonderful to not push the baby jogger up the hills around my house. 🙂

  8. Great topic Kristen.

    I am like you, but I believe it is a regional thing. Moving from the South to the North, I am treated like a leper for saying hello to others walking or running. I realize (like when I am dragging on a run), it is difficult to give a simple smile or wave, but some folks up here actually get offended by someone trying to be nice.

    I have gotten used to it, but still have not changed myself into unfriendly just to fit in here.

  9. I am so envious of the way you can write so many stunning sentences in such a short piece. This is really beautiful and you have changed the way I think about the people I don’t know. xoxo

  10. Yes, I am the kind of person who smiles and waves and makes small talk to strangers. For me, it’s about a persistent need to be liked that I just can’t seem to shake. I have a park I walk/run around regularly, full of familiar strangers who I have all sorts of backstories about!

  11. Such an interesting post! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And it occurred to me a few months back that I was being so selfish in thinking that when a friend or neighbour was short with me that it was because of something that I had said or done. Once I’d decided that they were probably going through something of their own (I usually attribute it to someone being sick or a fight with a spouse) I felt empathetic, rather than defensive and insulted.

    On the other hand, some people just aren’t friendly 🙂

    • Hi, Michelle, and welcome to Motherese!

      I know just what you mean about worrying that a person’s behavior is a reflection of something I’ve done or not done. Like you, I’m working on realizing that’s it’s not always all about me (something I tell my kids often enough). 🙂

  12. When someone doesn’t return a greeting or make eye contact, I assume they are living something that weighs on them, and need that focus and even insularity. I don’t take offense.

    I tend to greet others when I walk or am out and about, but I also recognize it’s regional / cultural. That doesn’t go in Paris. That doesn’t go in Flanders. Hell, it doesn’t go over in New England!

    I also know that there are times when I’m walking and I want the whole world to be blocked out. I don’t look up, I don’t glance either way, and I don’t want anyone in my bubble.

  13. I’m fascinated by all of the suggestions of regional variations on friendliness. As a native New Englander, I feel the need to defend my people: having lived in the Midwest for four years now, I really don’t think the people here are any friendlier than the people back home.

    Are those fighting words to anyone? 🙂

  14. I actually grew up in the Midwest, where I thought people were pretty darn friendly. Now I live in the South, where they put Midwesterners to shame. For the most part, people here are very warm and friendly. And when they ask, “How are you?” they actually want to know. You should plan to stop and chat for a while…

    I am the kind of person who smiles and says hi to strangers. And my daughter, who is almost three, does the same. It upsets me to watch people complete ignore her when she looks up at them and says, “Hi!” The other day we were at the park and this couple was there with their son. He had a soccer ball he didn’t want to play with, so the mom was holding it. My daughter went over and asked if she could play with it (very nicely, I might add). Neither adult acknowledged her. They didn’t say yes or no. They didn’t say anything to her at all, or even look at her.

    The next day we were at the zoo. I was waiting in line to buy tickets to feed the giraffes. Tried to make small talk with a dad in front of me, and he glared at me. I shrugged it off. Figured maybe he wasn’t having his best day. Or is not from around here. LOL But, like you, I do often find myself wondering why people can’t say hello or be the least bit social.

    • I am like that too when someone is unfriendly toward my kids. I understand it from adults who aren’t interested in kids, but I feel such a camaraderie with other parents that it always seems to odd to me when they are actively rude to my kids. The examples you give would have have really raised my hackles!

  15. New Englanders are great! I also think New Yorkers have an unfair rep for being rude. People tend to talk to people in the street, in the subway. I think it’s a product of being jammed into small spaces, it becomes harder to ignore fellow human beings. I acknowledge people, even if just with a quick hey-there smile. I am shy and don’t often initiate conversation, but I am definitely open to it. As for making up back stories to strangers, guilty. But honestly, don’t we all do that? I sure hope so…

  16. Funny you should write this today, as my mantra of late has been “Don’t take it personally.” It was one of the guidelines for living offered at the Reiki workshop I attended a few weeks ago; that and: Make no assumptions. Amazing how liberating it is to adopt these two simple notions. And, it makes me realize how MUCH I do tend to take personally, and how much I tend to assume — when, really, I just don’t know.

    • I wonder what my feats my brain would be capable of if I could live by these two mantras. I devote so much emotional space and energy to both of these things, I can’t even imagine what life would be like if I found a way to let them go.

  17. My sister and I were just discussing this today. Your posts are always so timely for me for some reason.

    We are currently in Switzerland and people seem to be unfriendly for the most part. Even the woman in the chocolate shop, who we were buying chocolate from, acted as though she was annoyed we were in her store. I don’t get it. But in Germany people were quite friendly to us. The woman you mention could just be from another culture.

    Like some of your other readers also mention, she may not speak English. I know I have been less than friendly to some people on this trip because I had no idea what they were saying to me. Being the semi-friendly person I am, I at least smile and say Hi so they know I am not just rude.

    I have experienced many of runners of both kids in my years of running. Definitely don’t take it personally. They might just be working something out in their heads, which is what I am often doing on a run.

  18. I’m not normally one to greet people I don’t know, but there’s a camaraderie among runners/bikers/walkers that must be acknowledged. That said, I totally wouldn’t take it personally; maybe she’s lost in thought?

  19. I spend much of my free time making up back stories or imagining elaborate scenarios. Likely, she’s just tired and focused, trying to get wherever she’s headed. I would probably appreciate that I didn’t have to turn “it” on for her.

  20. These comments are all so interesting! I will sometimes greet others out in the world, but to do it every time I saw someone, or to feel obligated to interact on the trail–I would find that exhausting! Especially if I was walking for rejuvenation. Because I am weird, obviously. But I do make up backstories for strangers… 🙂

  21. (I wish I had time to read all the comments before responding).

    I am that person on the bike – lost in my thoughts, focused on the task at hand, enjoying a moment’s peace, not wanting to engage.

    I am a regular at my local Starbucks. The baristas know me. The patrons know me. Our Starbucks happens to have a drive-thru and more often than not, I use it…because I don’t feel like talking to anyone or smiling, or pretending that my clothing is appropriate for public viewing.

    I wouldn’t say I live in a friendly place, but that could be my perception because I am not that person who offers myself unless I happen to be in a really good mood. Lots of people have told me that they thought I was a snob when they first met me. I’ve been like that since I was a child.

    It’s not personal. If that was me on the bike, it wouldn’t even occur to me that you think about me after I pass by.

    P.S. you almost lost me at “I run” 😉

  22. Oh, and…I totally make up back stories for stranger. I draw mental pics of where they might live and who might be in their lives…sometimes, they are elaborate! Ha!

  23. Long before I was a psychologist when I lived in New York there was a man in my building who never said hello or looked you in the eye. He also sometimes lurked in the stairwell. One night he literally tried to cut a hole in the floor and was convinced that his wife was in the floor below having an affair with some random neighbor he didn’t know. He had to go spend some time in Bellevue Mental Hospital.

    Whether crazy or not, I suspect that fear may have something to do with those who shun all contact—the fear that some ghastly feeling or assault coils waiting for them when, in more likelihood, the worst is on the trail behind and not ahead.

    Whatever the others say, to you I say, Namaste 🙂

  24. Honestly, that used to be me. Not on a bike, as I’ve never learned to ride and now I’m terrified to do so, but just out in the community… I say, don’t take it personally, but don’t stop trying to greet her either. My former reticence was entirely caused by feelings of low self-esteem, and I presume many of the people I now encounter who do not return smiles are struggling with the same problem. I actually did not begin to routinely greet people I did not already know until I read a book about dealing with bullies… It said that smiling confidently at strangers shows people who may want to trample on your rights that you are untrample-able. I have found this to be 100% true, but it also makes my life more pleasant and no doubt improves strangers’ opinions of my friendliness and likeablity.

  25. Look at this fabulous dialogue you’ve created; I love it. I have so many thoughts on this, I might just have to write a post, too. But in case I don’t, I’ll offer this:
    Your perception of the saddle-bag bike lady is one that I’ve oft crammed others into–rude, antisocial, etc–based on limited, surface data. But when I feel as if I’m being summed up and judged on unquantified data, I then get angry. Ahem. I’m trying to change this. I’m practicing accepting things as they are and trying to stop believing that I’m at the center of everyone else’s world. Key word in that sentence above: practice.

    I’m so inspired by people who do not take everything so personally.

    And on the cultural differences in our country’s various regions: I’m a Midwesterner (born in Ohio, lived in Illinois, college in Indiana) who moved south and then to the east coast. Each place has its pros and cons. Each place shines and tarnishes. It takes time to truly understand the nuances and cadences of a town, a region. I’ve found that the east coast cadence has been the most difficult for me to crack. Many times, I offer my usual smile to strangers and in return, I get a “why-the-hell-is-that-woman-smiling-at-me” growl followed by the “do-I-know-you” scowl. It’s good for me, living someplace that challenges my norms.

    Whew. Thanks for the great conversation, my friend. xoxo

  26. When I am walking, I greet those that pass by. Interesting that there is a lady in my neighborhood that acts the same way. I took it personally at first, then I realized that maybe she is not rude, that maybe she is burdened by something and that she just wants to be alone. So when I see her, I just pass by her.

  27. I am often quick to judge. I am trying to be better about it and think about it like you are here. It’s hard though!

  28. No question, I take everything personally.

    What a cross to bear in life.

    Don’t let it change you. (said to myself, also)

  29. I’ve read a poem about this woman. It’s called The Demon Cyclist, or something like it. I think an Eastern European poet; I read it in translation. The rider pedals, that’s all she does. She pedals on and on, driven by some inner demon we can’t fathom and maybe she can’t fathom. Maybe toward something, maybe away from something. I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find it. I can’t stop looking.

  30. I often have what I call a “bad default face;” that is, when I’m lost in my own thoughts, I rarely look smiley. I could be this woman! That said, I do often nod or smile at other exercise enthusiasts when I’m out running. I guess it depends on what’s going on in my brain that day.

  31. Two quick comments. As a man I find that if I offer a friendly hello to a woman it is more likely to be reciprocated if I am with my children. I suppose that the kids make me seem safer or something.

    I spent the summer of 1990 working at a summer camp a few hours north of Toronto. Some of the people at the camp told me that I was really rude because I didn’t say hello to everyone I passed. They also told me that I was paranoid because I locked my car.

    It really surprised me to hear these things because back home in Los Angeles that was normal behavior.

    • I do think gender plays an interesting part in this. Even where I live, in the “friendly” Midwest, I find that solo men (especially men around my age, give or take 10 years) are sometimes surprised when I greet them while running. I guess maybe they’ve been conditioned not to be too friendly to a solo woman?

  32. I try to smile at people when I pass them, and try not to take it personally if they don’t return the gesture… I think it’s because I want them to think I’m a nice person, even if I feel all demon-y that day. And I always, always ALWAYS make up back stories.

  33. What a great thought starter. I’m torn between three answers, so bear with me…
    My first thought is she is deaf (or in some other way differently abled). There’s something in the same clothes each time, oversized shirt, intense stare that avoids others that makes me think this. Probably not true…
    My second is I wish I had that strength. I’m plagued by the voices of “should” in my head that says I should smile, I should be nice, I should make others feel good regardless of my needs or mood. Some days, when I’m mad at the world, I’d like to scowl at strangers. But I know darned well that wouldn’t help and it would make other people uncomfortable. And empathy tells me not to risk that while Big Voices of Shoulds shame me for even considering it.
    My third thought is I’m glad I’m not in a place where I react the same way to stimuli every time. I like to give big smiles and hellos some times, meek grins sometimes, and polite nods other times depending on my mood and needs. If someone in my daily goings on seems to need a boost, I find ways to entertain. If they seem to need peace, I back way the heck off. If they seem to need brightness, I exude joy. And if *I* need any of those things, I relish the strangers who feed me what I seek.
    Any way. There’s some great story to her, and what I really want is a tale of all the people she blows past: how do *they* feel about it? Because we always make things about ourselves, right? A story that actually wrote her would be interesting, but one that chronicles all the passersby would be more realistic.
    Enjoy the mystery.

    • I saw the woman on the bike again this morning and thought about your comment, especially about the Voices of Should. Oh, if only I could find a way to quiet them in my own head.

      I found myself saying to someone the other day: “I care more about how I feel than about what someone else thinks.” If only that were true!

  34. I tend to be a little offended at a lack of response, but I truly don’t take it personally. I do judge, though, until my better nature kicks in and I I decide to assume they have some good reason to not waste the half-second it would take to make eye contact and nod.

    There are a few review comments on a popular and busy mountain park trail system near my home that lament the constant social comments from passersby. It seems to be an affront to some people that others would dare to accost them in such a way! I guess from the opposite perspective, if you’d prefer to be left alone in your thoughts, it would be equally annoying if strangers were repeatedly intruding.

    • Hi Margie,

      Your ability to see things from both sides is exactly what I’m trying to cultivate. I realize that, whenever I see this woman (as I did again this morning), I think about my reaction to her, but not really about her. I’m trying to retrain myself to worry about the things I can control rather than the things I can’t.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  35. That’s a good question–living in Chicago, I will make eye contact and say hello to people I see regularly in my neighborhood or on my way to work. But with strangers, or when I’m downtown, I avoid eye contact. I think it’s a big city thing.

    • I think that makes a lot of sense. If you’re in a city like Chicago or New York or San Francisco, it would be overwhelming to nod or say hello to every person you pass, but, where I live (a rural suburb in the Midwest), it seems odd to walk past another person and not acknowledge them at all when you and she are the only two people anywhere in sight. Like most things, it’s all about context, I guess.

      Thanks for visiting, Jenna!

  36. For as much walking as they do, Romanians do not greet each other on the street either, unless they already know one another. Because I was raised to make eye contact and smile at passersby, this is just one more reason I stand out here.

    But on a rural road in a small town in America, I would take offense. How could you not, especially day after day, time after time? The power of a friendly smile could really brighten her day … if only she were more receptive.

    And here’s another interesting question: How long until you are conditioned by her unresponsiveness and stop smiling at her?

  37. Very insightful. Politeness is in my bones, no matter my personal issue. But I do envy people who can focus on what their own needs are in the moment even if it seems rude.

    Unless she just plain is rude.

  38. I guess some people are just really focused? I can see that…but then again my life-long city-living may have skewed my perception.

    Where I work, there’s an impossibly long hallway that takes us to the restrooms and the kitchen, which means it’s a popular path. That also means every time I’m there, I will inevitably meet someone coming or going and it’s often awkward because not everyone wants to make eye contact so I’m never sure if I should say something anyway or just ignore them as they were planning on ignoring me. But then I’d hate to be thought rude so I try to muster a greeting anyway.

    And then I feel like I’m intruding for some reason. Sigh. I can never win.

  39. I wrote a post about just this very thing a long time ago. I called the woman Firewalker. (No bikes were harmed in the making of my post.) But I totally get what you mean! It drives me crazy when people can’t even acknowledge they’re passing another person. I am too sensitive to the impression others’ give, too, which isn’t any good in these situations.

  40. It’s difficult to understand why she isn’t smiling. She has her life. She has the faculty to ride her bike. She has the freedom to peruse the roads. So many gifts, but what keeps her from acknowledging the joy? We may never know. But I suspect it has nothing to do with you. Don’t take it personally. You keep on smiling.

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