The etiquette of hello

There's a lovely scene in Crocodile Dundee, where Paul Hogan leans out of a car window in Manhattan and exchanges greetings with a stereotypical business suit. "I'm in town for a couple of days, probably see ya around," he says with a wave.

We laugh at Hogan and - I guess - at ourselves. We're all the same, at least in towns and cities. On the train or bus to work we might stretch to a flicker of a smile and say "after you" before returning to the comfort zone of our smartphones.

On my last working day in London, after seven years commuting, I walked to West Finchley train station with the intention of entering the carriage and greeting my fellow inmates with cheery, valedictory "hello there". But I couldn't do it. There was a small chance someone might actually punch me; and I'd be lucky to get to King's Cross before the men in white coats boarded the train to drag me away.

"Uh-oh"Out in the great outdoors, it couldn't be more different, where like-minded people, unshackled by the abnormal social conventions of urban living, hail fellow walkers like old friends. Or at least they do most of the time: the more I walk in the countryside, the more I'm puzzled by the conventions at play: who should you greet while wandering lonely as the proverbial?

We walk in the countryside for a zillion reasons, but one is - not unreasonably - the solitude. So why the convention that we have to greet someone coming the other way? Presumably even our Neolithic ancestors did so, grunting monosyllabically and jabbing a finger to where the sabre-toothed tiger was lurking.

Yet even in our shackle-breaking countryside, there are places where it appears not to be the done thing to say 'hello'. Scafell Pike, or Mam Tor in the Peak District spring to mind, though these are places where the routes to the summit often resemble a city centre train station at rush hour. If there is a critical mass of people, then the convention of rural greetings collapses - but what is that number?

If someone marches past, head down, is it really fair to dismiss them as a socially inadequate misanthrope? I should declare at this point I'm something of a hypocrite. Aged 19, I walked the Pennine Way, during my Catcher in the Rye phase, intending to meet as few people as possible. Near Shap, I took a diversion to circumnavigate someone heading south. Others reciprocated, and I knew where they were coming from.

Two years ago, in Glen Coe I arrived at the top of the pass down to Glen Etive, exactly as someone clambered up in the opposite direction. It felt like two cars bumping into each other at a fork in a quiet rural lane. We both knew we had inadvertently spoiled the experience for the other, just by being there. As an ice-breaker, I said "worth the admission fee" and nodded towards the valley views. Silence. With a withering shrug of his head he plodded on.

Thankfully, there are some straightforward scenarios. If I'm walking with my wife and we meet another couple, the 'hellos' are freely offered, a signal that we all buy into where we are and why we are there. I always acknowledge farmers, and most of them reciprocate. I make a point of greeting fell runners and mountain bikers if they are showing off, for example, by sidling up Skiddaw. Let's see if you're fit enough to respond, or will it draw out your last twitching breath?

Fletching, SurreyBut if I'm by myself the etiquette becomes more meaningful and ambiguous. I have come to dread meeting a group walk coming the other way. Just how many 'hellos' do they need? One for each of the party? Should I skip the grumpy looking ones? Some couples will give me a smug, superior look, or simply assume I'm a prison escapee. "You just wait," I want to whisper to her, "just wait until he marches you up Scafell Pike on an empty stomach."

Do you ever find yourself playing a game of chicken with the person walking towards you? Who will say hello first? At what point do you acknowledge them or make eye contact? Fifty yards away? One hundred? Greet them too soon and you'll lock yourself into a conversation you have no appetite for. Leave it too late and they'll get in first, leaving you feeling rather churlish.

I'm guilty too of trying to decode a few things about other walkers. That couple I've just walked past. What shenanigans might be at play? He hailed me breezily enough, but she looked a bit shifty if you asked me. They just didn't look right. Didn't she cast her eyes down the hill to a distant tractor? Aha. A love-hungry farmers' wife, momentarily checking that her husband was safely entombed in his cab, ploughing the potatoes...

Walking with my children is easy. I'm free to smash through the conventions and greet oncoming walkers as cheerily and annoyingly as I wish. And parents will often exchange knowing looks. Passing a father with his kids on Dartmoor, he turned to me and sighed: "See that tor, right on the horizon? My previous life is just behind it. Just out of view." I know what he meant. And young couples: how many times has the woman gone all gooey at the sight of my children, unusually behaving themselves? "That could be us!" she says a little too maternally, threading her wind-proofed arm through that of her beau. He looks away, appalled, as if searching for a cigarette and a blindfold.

North Berwick LawOn the whole, though, we British are pretty generous with our greetings. Anyone reading this who hopes to be offended on geographical grounds will be disappointed: I've not seen much evidence of a snooty-south/ chatty-north divide; generally it is an urban/rural thing.

It's not always the same overseas. A few years back, on a city break to Barcelona, my wife wanted to make the most of wonderful weather - and clear a hangover - by taking me on a morning walk in the Collserola above the city. We had no hiking gear, so walked up in a long dress and heels (her, since you asked), carrying only a guidebook and a packet of paracetamol. Half way up, we met a party of descending Bearded Mountain Men, apparently kitted out for a back-to-back assault on a succession of Himalayan peaks. They had the advantage of height over us, and the phrase 'looking down your nose' was never more relevant. But we had punctured their self-esteem. They knew it, and they knew that we knew. They passed wordlessly, eyes fixed straight ahead.

That put them in their place. But generally, I hail people because it is a very human thing to do. It's a world away from the tin cage of the London Underground, and it's a world that most of us, most of the time, rather like.

Mark Rowe is a journalist who writes on walking, the great outdoors generally and environmental issues. Follow him at @wanderingrowe and www.markrowe.eu.