Etiquette: The Nuances of When to Leave Someone Alone

Updated April 10, 2020

The etiquette of enjoying the outdoors

With Strangers

Those, such as Southerners in the United States, are raised to be polite and to greet people. However, there are subtle nuances to greeting people, strangers as well as familiar people. For example, consider the following scenarios:

  • It’s getting dark faster than you thought and you are trying get to somewhere.
  • At a resort, you share a hot tub with strangers of the opposite sex.

Other Comments

  • Lastly, don’t be fearful of being perceived as rude if you and a stranger don’t greet each other.
  • As you come with 10 feet of the stranger, attempt to make eye contact. If you make eye contact, a half-smile will do. If no eye contact is made within a split second, and no outward acknowledgment noticed; no greeting is needed. Move on.

With Strangers and Familiar People

Private Moments in Public Space

  • It’s okay NOT to greet someone when a person is in the middle of physical exercise.
  • On any day, it’s not necessary to greet someone when it’s before 8 am, when people attempt to wake up, and after 6 pm when people wind down from the day.
  • It’s okay NOT to greet a stranger if he looks at your dog. He may want his time to have private time.

“You need to give space for people to be, and be human, and throughout the day, have varying emotions and intensity of those emotions.”

Now For the Most Difficult Part

It’s okay NOT to greet a stranger or even someone you know, when they look like they are in deep thought or meditation or in their private work or desire “privacy” even in a public space.

You have to remember, some people are in a meditative state all the time. They are “in their world” or they may be in mourning. Every second of the day, you just don’t know what state people are in. You need to give space for people to be, and be human and, throughout the day, have varying emotions and intensity of those emotions.

If you somehow can’t discern if someone is in deep thought or meditation, here are some clues or concrete things the people do to signal that they desire and are having private time:

  • when a person has no particular destination in mind: when the person is strolling, hiking in the woods, walking on the sidewalk, walking through a garden
  • when the person is looking out into space and not making eye contact.
  • when the person is sitting at a bench or lounging next to a pool

Also, there are too many nuances to the below scenarios. In respect of time and privacy, you should ask permission to talk. Permission could be as simple as receiving eye contact from the person you wish to speak to, or to a more sophisticated method: you need to make an appointment to talk to them.

  • eating at a lunch counter
  • standing in an elevator
  • sitting at a bar
  • sitting in their office
  • working on the computer

In Summary

I know the above sounds obvious to some of us. However, some of us don’t understand these nuances and, therefore, either interrupt and disrupt people, get people upset, or avoid certain areas altogether because we don’t know how to when to leave someone alone and when to greet them.

Or we avoid areas altogether because we don’t know how to signal to others we don’t want to be interrupted and we desire privacy.

Because when one knows how to when to leave someone alone and when to greet them, one can easier share a large space with others in peace. One can even have a version of privacy in a public space.


Chinese-American Emy Louie was born in Hong Kong and raised in Honolulu in the 70’s and 80’s. Since 1993, she has been a resident of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

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