Reserving my hellos

Photo by WildImages

One time, I was out somewhere with a friend who happened to be Persian, when she stopped to ask me who was the person that I'd just said hello to on the street. I think I must not have been fast enough on the uptake that she went on to clarify how she'd been referring to the woman I had just greeted in passing.

Well nobody I know, I said.

-Then why did you say hello to her? (she seemed curious)

Because that is what I've been taught to do.

-In my country we don't say hello to people unless we've actually been introduced to them, she said.

Is that so? Well, in my country, we say hello to any and every person that brushes by us on the street. Irrespective of whether we know them or not.

-How come?

What do you mean how come? That's just the way it is. And furthermore I added, if you make eye-contact then you murmur a polite good morning or good afternoon.


Because, you want to be polite. What do you mean why? Just because, that's the way it is.

-Seems like you should be reserving your hellos for people you actually know if you ask me.

I hadn't really asked her of course but that is neither here nor there. Still, fast forward in time to this morning. I'm waiting to take an elevator and with me are about 6 people or so. Two of them are males, the rest all ladies going into one tiny crowded elevator. As I was the first person in, I punched the button to my floor and politely asked of everyone who trailed in after me (neither man waited for the ladies to go in first I might add) what floor they were going to so that I could likewise punch in their floor numbers for them. The ladies almost took it for granted that I asked though one did look surprised that I'd even bothered to offer. One male told me his floor and the other one, elbowed me gently to the side, didn't even answer, and just punched his floor number himself. I've recounted this episode for you in painstaking detail for a reason, so bear with me.

By the time I arrived at my own floor, only one person had gotten off before me which made me the second person to depart right? So, I turned just a tad sideways and I said to the group in general, Good day to you all. No one replied thank you, no one murmured a you too, the doors just closed in on silence. I really could have been speaking to an empty elevator for all intents and purposes.

You would think that after almost 20 years of living on and off in the US, that I would have learned my lesson by now with regards to this whole greeting thing. After all, this is most definitely not the first time this kind of situation has ever happened to me, and I am quite sure it will not be the last. WHY do I keep doing it then?

Frankly, the answer to that question is the consolidation of two inherent traits that make me persevere doggedly in my quest to greet humanity in general. I'm a creature of habit and I'm stubborn to boot. I ask you, what is so wrong about mumbling a polite hello to someone you do not know? Heck, I think it's better than screaming expletives to absolute strangers on the street because they blinked at you the wrong way. The question I always end up asking is, why doesn't everybody else do like me? I'm speaking in general terms of course since you do find some people who greet you in spite of not knowing you.

I watch lots of old movies. Take a look at an old black and white film and you invariably see gentlemen inclining their heads at ladies in greeting or tipping their hats to passersby on the street. What I can infer from this celluloid reflection of real life is that obviously, greeting for greetings sake did take place before but somehow, no longer. Why is that? How did we here in the US, lose the habit of greeting perfect strangers, of observing certain patterns of polite behavior to the degree that when someone like me does greet someone she doesn't know, in this day and age, this action is viewed as archaic, strange, somehow unexpected and wrong. How did that happen?

I really don't have a full explanation for it. All I know is how things are where I come from. Like I was telling you, back home in Panama we greet every Juan, Pedro and Maria on the street. But here in the States, the norm is that we only greet those whom we know.

I've always thought the world would be a better place if we all treated each other with a bit more courtesy. It's harder to shout bad words at someone whom you've said hello to, don't you think?

I get a sad little feeling in the pit of my stomach sometimes if my kid, whom I raise as closely in behavior to the way I myself was brought up, says hello to a child or an adult and gets nothing in return for his sweet piping voice and small hand raised in greeting. Everyone should be taught to greet each other even if they didn't come out of the same womb or have had a previous acquaintance. Most definitely, everyone should greet a child who says hello no matter if the child is unknown to them.

I will persevere. I won't ever reserve my hellos for only those I know. And I hope my son continues to learn to give his own as freely as he does now. I feel this is a service I do for myself, for my child, and for the rest of my human brethren.


  1. I can't believe people don't say hi back to your kid. Thats weird. I think it may be different depending on where you live even in the US. Some people just suck.

    When I was about 7 months pregnant, riding the subway with a 18 month it tow, NO ONE offered me a seat!! I stood! I have to say where i live now I think some nice stranger would stand up.

    I love that she said she thought you should reserve your hellos, so funny!

    And you're right - I think Anglos in general probably say hello out of discomfort.
    Sorry so long. :)

  2. Dear Sister Sassy: Sometimes that is indeed the case. It hurts me to see him crestfallen when this happens. I always say something like - oh, I'm sure they didn't hear you R. Someday he'll stop believing this is the case though and then, what will I do?

    The pregnant thing happened to me to. In DC. I was 8 months along and as big as a whale. The metro there has a section at the front and rear of every car for people with disabilities, mothers with small children or whales as it happens. There was a man there. As hearty and hale as you please. Sunk his head down into his newspaper once he realized I was aiming for the seat he had so inconsiderately taken for himself. I planted my enormous belly right in front of his face and he didn't even twitch until I said out loud, enough for him and those next to him to hear - I wonder if I were your pregnant wife whether you would treat me like this? He didn't look up but his face became flame red and then, he folded his newspaper, picked up his suitcase, got up and gave me his seat. All without looking at me or saying a word. It's a pity really that I had to shame him into it. Shouldn't have to be that way.

    Yes, can you imagine? Reserve them as if they had destinations or particular owners.

    For the most part Anglos (like you said) do tend to be more reserved or effusive in their salutations. Quite the opposite from Latin Americans. On the other side of the coin. Perhaps we (Latins) go a little overboard. I don't know.

  3. I definitely say hello to everyone I meet up with or pass (face to face). If I don't say the word hello, I at least smile and nod. My husband gets after me for not waving hello to neighbors when we drive past and they are walking. "I smiled!" I say. It's just nice to do something.

    to me, smiling at someone (even if they don't smile back) sends this message: You are worthy of a smile :) It just feels good.

  4. OH Gypsy, you have hit on a pandemic that most certainly needs addressing. I'll share a little something that should shame all Southerners who are guilty of such rudeness. I was raised in the West, where people greeted each other in passing. A smile, a nod, a good morning, afternoon, whatever, and I had always heard the term "southern hospitality." When my family returned to the South, I was 13. I continued my taught etiquette of greeting all whom I crossed paths with. They looked at me like I was nuts!

    Don't folks realize how rude they are being?

    You keep smiling though, Gypsy. Shine your light for all to see, you may make a difference in one person's life. Mostly, you keep smiling for your son - he needs to know that rudeness and apathy are not acceptable, regardless of the way the zombies of the world react around him. You are raising your own diplomat and leader of humanity. Three cheers.

  5. Ciao from Italy -- In my tiny 20-house village on a mountainside, I greet every single person I see, and woe betide anyone who doesn't greet me back. In my local small town (5,000 residents), I smile and greet almost everyone and they smile and greet me. When I'm out with the children, they're always made a fuss of by complete strangers, and I think this helps both the stranger and me to feel that we are on nodding terms. So when I'm running errands my little head bobs up and down in a nod of greeting and there's a (genuine, I hope) smile plastered across my face all day. Up the road 30 Klicks to the nearest big town and it's a different story. People will greet you if they have cause to (eye contact, the children, etc.) but otherwise everyone goes about their business as individuals unconnected with each other. The same as London, my adopted city for 20 years, but without the underlying aggression. What I guess I'm trying to say (at too great length and I'm sorry for that) is that I think it depends on the size and health of the community you live in. Small communities foster this kind of phattic communion as a form of glue. The larger the community becomes the less it's used.

  6. I definitely think this is a regional problem. One that plagues big cities more than small towns. I guess it has something to do with being just one of many all packed into a crowded space...there's a need for anonymity, privacy that drives people to ignore proximity and maintain stubborn divides. (Though there are four hundred people living in a building, most residents get to know only one or two of their neighbors because that is how they survive the crowding, the lack of space.) Whereas, those in rural settings, less in need of privacy and space, seem more open to exchanging pleasantries when encountering another person. Just human nature I guess. But children should always receive a wave and smile. That's universal.

  7. sorry about your luck but I dont see it that way where I live we all say hello or smile if someone does not that is there loss you should be more positive the people you run into that dont respond may have something troubling on there mind and your smile or hello might be the only nice thing that has happend to them all day you should not expect it in return just fill good that you may have made someone else fill good

  8. Half-Past: I think just like you with regards to why I believe it important to greet. It is a nice thing to do. I feel better when I acknowledge someone's existence by nodding at them, making eye-contact or just murmuring a hello. I'm not painted on the wall and neither are they. If someone smiles at me in passing, it makes me feel better so, why shouldn't I return the favor?

    GranmaTexas: Thank you for always making me feel good through your kind comments. I appreciate the unstinting support you always give me in anything related to raising my son. To answer your question, I don't believe people realize that I or you view their greeting apathy as rudeness at all. That is just the way things are in certain places. How I wish it weren't. For the most part, it doesn't bother me for myself but it does bother me when someone ignores my son. It happens not all the time but often enough that I notice and enough that he is starting to notice also.

    Louise: Hola. I had to look up the word phatic. Had never heard it before even though the rest of your insightful comment was perfectly clear. Yes, it is very obvious that the smaller the number of people the more greeting goes on, the larger the number, the less. I get that. The question I was really trying to raise though (I think) is WHY should this be the case? If it can be done in a town of 500 inhabitants, it can be done in a town of 5000 or 5,000,000. You don't pass all 5 million or even the 5 thousand by on a daily basis. You just brush by a set number of people. If the eye contact is there, if the inadvertent touch occurs why doesn't an acknowledgment of the brief encounter result in a likewise brief greeting. We don't use up any more energy and what can come of something so seemingly small is really enormous. You feel better for having your children made a fuss of don't you, for sharing a miniature moment so to speak with someone who, for the briefest of seconds, is precisely that - SOMEONE. You validate them by greeting.

    Cce: I've been reading what you've been writing. YOU are GOOD. I haven't finished but I will tell you what I think about how good your writing is as soon as possible. Thanks for stopping by. I think you hit it on the nail with that sentence about people living in rural settings having less need of privacy and space. In big towns, most everyone insulates themselves by not opening up to those next to us. Quietness, a going about your business without interaction is an unseen bubble we build for protection purposes. I'm guilty of it myself. Sometimes, I just don't want to chat and I sit in my airplane seat with my book in front and tunnel vision for nothing but the book. It's like I am hanging a literal do not disturb sign for all to see. Don't invite someone in and that way you don't have to fight to shut them out right? Well, that is where the whole problem lies. For not inviting in some, we are shutting out all. This is bad for society in general. Yet another marker of distancing and isolation which feeds into other larger kinds of distancing and isolationism.

    Sorry I wrote such long responses to all of you. I didn't mean to keep you captive to this little blogger window. Milena

  9. I try to greet everyone, also. It costs nothing, and I prefer to cultivate a world where friendliness is the norm rather than the exception.

    This was a great post, and I'm glad I stumbled on to it!

    Oh, and have a lovely day. :-)

  10. I am a sucker for the little courtesies and oh so wish gallantry wasn't in such scarce supply, in both men and women. I am not one of the most social or outwardly engaged people, so I can't say it's been social conditioning that leads me to feel acknowledging a fellow human is simply the right thing to do. But sometimes, I greet people on the street and am met not only with deafening silence, but occasionally an actual "say wha??" look is thrown in for good measure.

    Hannibal Lecter doesn't spring to mind as a paragon of human virtue but authour Thomas Harris did credit him with a nice line in 'Silence of the Lambs': "You've been courteous, and receptive to courtesy..." He also couldn't bear the "free range rude", and you know what happened to them ;-)

  11. I could not agree more.

    My husband taught me the art of being friendly to everyone. Everyone.

    And it does make the world a better place.

  12. Reading your post Milena, I was thinking along the lines of what Louise and cce already expressed excellently. Having conformed to Stockholms (Swedish and big city) non-communicative mode I can tell you that an unexpected greeting in an elevator (which happens extremely seldom!) would first have me thinking it was meant for someone the greeter knows and only after that would my mind go on to other possibilities. It is rather sad that it should be that way, the world would certainly be a much better place if it weren't so.

  13. Like Mama Bird, my husband, a nice southern gentlemen, also taught me to be kind and engaging to everyone I cross paths with. Although sometimes it just doesn't happen, I do try to make an attempt, particularly when with my girls, to be polite to others. I want to set a good example. But you did put your finger on something that has been a thorn in my side for a long, long time. Where has chivalry gone? I cannot tell you how many times I've been headed into a store doorway with a baby in my arms and a toddler on my hand, and someone coming out of the shop has simply let the door slam behind them. Ugh. It infuriates me. But this post is a gentle reminder to me that I have to try a little harder, so thank you for that.

  14. I'm with you, I just feel a bit more civilized when exchanging pleasantries with total strangers. Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone.

  15. It seems like the simplest predictor might be population density (said the armchair sociologist): if you brush past 1,000 people a day you're less likely to acknowledge them than if you brush past one or two.
    Martin Buber (if I remember right) talks about addressing the "thou within." I've taken great delight in pushing past people's roles to talk to the person who is inevitably bigger than their public role. This invariably seems gratifying but often gives folks a bit of an initial jolt.
    Oh, and I suppose that stubborn idealists are behind whatever progress we've enjoyed.

  16. i'm a "hello, how are you" type of gal too!

    there is a missing link... i think it is a missed opportunity to share a smile or give a heart a lift.

    i have been in that "no response" situation before... makes me feel sad... like we are all just walking aimlessly through life. that small little connection can be so special... atleast to some of us!

    thanks for such an insightful post!
    really great! have a super day!

  17. I'd suggest you not quit; and, I'm a bit suprised that where you live, your kindness is not reciprocated.

    My Mother would slap me up side of my head (not really, she'd just look down at me with a withering look) if I didn't hold a door open for anyone, man, woman, especially one of either that was older than me.

    When we (me and my two younger brothers) went anywhere, my father gave us "The Speech:" "You don't ask for anything. You don't talk, or yell or run. If they ask you something, you can answer. If they offer you something, you can say yes." I go in trouble one time for mouthing The Speech as he spoke it for the benefit of my youngest brother.

    I also grew up with my Father nevr knowing a stranger that wasn't his potential friend. That part of his personality, him living in Michigan, bothering me when he visited me in Miami.

    That said, I've learned that he had it right on the politeness and friendliness front.

    To return to the point of your post. Keep smiling. People for the most part can't resist a smile and a "how you." You you often get back a bigger smile and a "not bad." As for the rest of them (&%$'m.

  18. My apologies, my fingers type things that my head, were I to use spell check would disapprove of.

  19. M: wow! you're getting popular, or maybe you already were and I just didn't notice! :)

    i have a really similar post back in the summer about how I wish more people were like me. Like you, I just try to be friendly and it's odd the people that don't respond. All I can say is that I live in the US, and I say hi to most people...and the majority I think, feel inclined to respond back. However, if for some reason my mood is one where I don't say hi first, you're right - most people don't initiate like I do. Well, all I can say is that I'd rather be like me (and you) than them. That's all we can ever do. I liked this post!


Leaving a Leaping Thought's worth