Life advice: Etiquette for running into someone from your past


Or to be more specific running into someone you never wanted to see or hear from again.  It could be facing the drama of an ex-boyfriend or an ex-best friend, the kind that ended in shouting and tears.  Or the awkwardness of that person you dated three times and never called back.  Perhaps a childhood friend you just let drift away or an old coworker whose Facebook friend request you ignored.  In the end it’s all the same.  You’re being forced to confront a person you used to share some sort of intimacy with and it’s difficult.

This type of uncomfortable encounter is bound to happen to all of us at some point. The world can be a small place to begin with, and with the rise of technology it’s getting even smaller.  Once you’ve removed somebody from your everyday life (or been removed from theirs), you will probably still share some of the same friends, co workers, or acquaintances.  Moving away doesn’t really change things because with social networking tools, anyone you’ve ever met can find you in minutes.

The scariest part is the unknown, including how they might react or what they might expect from you.  But just remember that you are in control of your own life. Don’t let them dictate how you handle the situation.  You may not be able to manage their behavior, but you can certainly manage your own. Decide what you want to do, and then follow through no matter what. Here are a few things to think about when the time comes.

Always be polite

No matter how things ended, prove to them and yourself that you’ve moved on.

  • Remember all the nice things you once shared, if there were any, and find it within yourself to be kind.
  • If it’s simply a social network friend request, feel free to silently ignore it.  Don’t agonize over it, wondering what it all means, because the fact that it was sent without a message suggests it doesn’t mean much at all.  Never feel guilty or obligated to say yes.
  • If there is a message attached to a friend request or you get a personal email you should definitely answer it.  If you don’t, then it will become unfinished business and closure is key.
  • If you run into them in public or in passing, don’t pretend you didn’t see them.  Don’t add to the drama.  Try to imagine all the horrible ways you’re actions might be interpreted, and know that being casually polite will make things clear.  This is absolutely essential if you find yourself at the same party or event.  Being stuck in a room together for hours will make your avoiding them much more obvious and strange.
  • If you are with someone when you have a run in, make sure to introduce them.  If they are with someone, and fail to introduce you, introduce yourself in a friendly way.  Be polite even if they are not.

Always be removed

  • Even if you are forced to greet them or make chit chat, keep it short.  Don’t offer any personal details about your current life no matter how much you want to.  It doesn’t matter what they know or think, they are no longer a part of your life.  Showing off by mentioning your job promotion or engagement ring only shows that you still care.
  • If they speak about their own life voluntarily, make sure to say you’re happy they are doing well or sorry about what they are going through. Don’t encourage more by asking detailed questions.  Don’t let the conversation go on for too long.
  • Another way to think of it? Structure the conversation like a debate match.  You each say your piece, you each react to what the other has said, and then it’s time for the conclusion.  It doesn’t matter how many imaginary conversations or arguments you’ve had with this person over the years, it just isn’t worth it in real life.
  • Finally, whatever you do, do not rehash the past.  Don’t even bring it up.  Don’t make references to things you use to share like a favorite band or remind them how well you used to know each other by remembering that they like Chinese food.
  • A little trick is to pretend you just met this person for the first time, and have no interest in knowing them better.  That will help dictate your behavior.

Always be firm

  • If you are trying to be removed and they ask too many questions or push for a longer conversation, don’t give in. Reply with light, general responses and maintain control and power in the conversation.
  • If they blatantly try to bring up your history, then be direct and tell them that you’d rather not rehash the past.  And don’t say it as though you’re asking their permission or for a favor.  Do it as though someone offered you salt for your meal and you don’t want any.  No big deal and no interest whatsoever.
  • If the interaction is via email, conclude by wishing them a wonderful life and good luck in the future, which makes it clear you don’t intend to be around to see it.
  • If you met in passing, mention that you are on your way somewhere and it’s time for you to go.
  • If the encounter occurs at a party, end the conversation with a “nice seeing you” and a smile, as though you assume that THEY don’t want to talk to YOU any longer.  This stops them from feeling blown off and getting confrontational out of pride.  Then have a physical goal when you walk away.  Preferably someone else to go talk to rather than heading off to be alone, which might make it seem like you were more affected by the run in then you are.  The last thing you want is for them to be concerned and follow you to check if you’re okay.  After that, refrain from making eye contact or talking about them to others which can be overheard.  In other words, act  like it never happened.

In the end, after it’s all over, the most important thing to do is let it go.  Put it behind you and move forward with your life.  The future is waiting!