Picture yourself walking alone on a path leading to your home or job. Up ahead you see another person walking in your direction, someone with whom you’re not acquainted. You are two strangers passing each other and you feel mildly conflicted. A normal inclination to offer a polite hello is hindered by felt shyness, a natural introversion or an understandable wariness of potential predators. “Be cool, be cool,” you tell yourself as you affect a nonchalant manner. You may or may not say hello. If you do, the other person may or may not acknowledge your greeting. For such a commonplace awkward experience, it’s curious there are no standard, explicit instructions about it in the accepted rules of conduct for our culture.
If this tendency towards shyness, privacy or suspicion pervades smaller communities, whose cultural health is dependent on a network of trusting personal relationships, then an isolating chill can settle upon human interactions in that community. An experience as unexceptional as saying hello to a fellow solitary walker and receiving no reply can produce an acute feeling of disconnect. What is the long term effect if we experience this regularly?
A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders followed more than a thousand students through their college years. The researchers determined one of the most reliable predictors of suicidal thoughts was a lack of social support: feeling unappreciated and isolated from family and friends.
The persistent feeling of isolation cited by many college students may seem surprising, considering potential friendships abound in the college scene. But the path to true intimacy in friendships is not as clear-cut as one might assume. Individuals within a polity almost unconsciously seek to overcome isolation through communal emotional experiences. These are traditions and group activities where everyone feels the same thing at the same time, for example, spectating at sporting events. One could argue that the culture of drinking attempts to create communal emotions. Shared mood-altering experiences may level the emotional playing field, in a sense. We’re gratified when we feel something together.
A simple greeting can accomplish a kind of emotional leveling as well. A sincere well-
wishing between two human beings is a surprisingly potent way to momentarily bridge the
isolation gap, to impart appreciation and sow the seeds of goodwill and trust in a community. We behold the face of another and we communicate with intention, however briefly. The implicit message of a greeting is “I respect your place in our community and I wish you well.” When shared, that’s a lot of goodwill packed into a simple hello.
My father was a teacher and a master of the warm greeting. A graduating student once confessed, with gratitude, that he purposely walked out of his way in the school hallways each day, just so he could be greeted by my father. In the realm of good deed doing, a warm hello is vastly underrated.
In Book VII of The Politics, Aristotle contends that the integrity of a state depends on its citizens having a certain level of familiarity with each other. Aristotle advocates a limit of the total population of a state because its members function best when they have a reasonable trust level with a large percentage of members. French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville, in his landmark Democracy in America, describes a distinctive American version of Aristotle’s blueprint for a thriving civil society. We tend to form small associations around political, social and religious interests that manifest this familiarity and interdependent trust.
But something in this arrangement is breaking down. The isolated college student is not a singular phenomenon. There is a culture-wide trend away from individuals forming trusting relationships through organized affiliations, involving face-to-face interactions with others, unmediated by electronics. The average American is more isolated than in decades past, has fewer close friends and, presumably, experiences less goodwill.
Therefore, I have a very modest proposal for decisive action to increase the trust on a personal level: let’s voluntarily greet one another when we have the opportunity to do so, instead of passing by in silence. A simple hello is all it takes to sow the seeds of goodwill.
I don’t wish to create any guilt around this for anyone. There’s no compulsion. An individual may rightly maintain silence for his or her own valid privacy concerns. A greeting may in fact be ill-advised to carry out in crowded locales. Neither do I envision wearying anyone with perfunctory greetings carried out in the same way in the same places every day.
There is, however, much room for thoughtful improvement. A personal greeting exchanged with the warmth we really feel over our shared humanity and our common love for our communities is a great equalizer and affirms the civil, egalitarian spirit we profess as Americans. I suspect even a small increase in face-to-face connectedness could make a positive difference.
Will an increase of simple greetings end all estrangement, loneliness or even suicidal leanings? Very unlikely. This is why I call this idea a very modest proposal. But in its modesty lies its unassuming beauty: the power of small, incremental change. Increasing the trust benefits everyone because we are all nurtured by small reminders that we belong to a community and that we matter to others in it. The warm greeting is a lost art and a relatively easy way to make the world a better place.