We all know that dreaded feeling when upon entering an elevator and seeing strangers there. We don’t know where to look — up, down, or at the buttons.
On my morning neighborhood walks, immersed in conversation with my partner, we often cross paths with oncoming walkers. It is intriguing to observe the interactions between unfamiliar human beings — especially when they come within 12 inches of each other.
Whenever we pass someone, one of us always makes it a point to look at them and say “good morning.”
Most of the time the passerby responds with a friendly “good morning” in return.
Some are caught off guard and take a few seconds to process the greeting and mumble a response some moments after we have already passed. Others just keep walking.
The other day, one person actually paused to say “Hi, my name is Marilyn! Where are you all from?” Taken aback ourselves by this extreme but sincere greeting, we both introduced ourselves and continued walking. What had just happened?
I have come to find these random exchanges enlightening and rewarding. Interacting with strangers is not only interesting, it breaks down unnecessary barriers. From our routine interactions, we have actually cultivated a few “walk friends.” We don’t really know each other but we have acknowledged their existence. They mean something to us.
Where does friendliness begin?
Amy Rees Anderson, in her Forbes.com article “Make Eye Contact, Smile and Say Hello,” recounts how so many of us have been in situations where we have felt like we didn’t know anyone in the room. Then some superhero — a stranger —comes up and smiles, puts out their hand and says “hello.” And just like that, the awkwardness is over.
When you say hello and make eye contact with a stranger, you have the power to change their world — and yours, too. No one is ever offended by having a stranger say hello to them. Whether in a social gathering or on the street, everyone wants to feel accepted and acknowledged, just like you do. So why are we so hesitant to walk up to others and say hello?
All of us have an inherent need to belong, and all of us have the desire to be accepted and to feel included. Being included and accepted directly impact our psychological and our physical health.
A 2012 research study entitled “To Be Looked at as Through Air: Civil Attention Matters” (Eric D. Wesselmann, Purdue University) shared the fundamental importance of social connections to survival, and that humans evolved systems (such as simple eye contact) to detect the slightest cues of inclusion or exclusion.
In a PsychologyToday.com article, “Why are some kids popular?,” clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD says that popularity in school is in part related to being friendly with other peers. While some popular kids can certainly be deemed antisocial, the majority of popular kids — those who are prosocial — are kids who do well in school and act in friendly supportive ways toward their peers.
Writer Judith Warner noted a quote in the Wall Street Journal. It said “Children should say hello, goodbye, thank you and please.” She says this statement points directly to one of the most meaningful differences between the contemporary American style of parenting and that of other countries. As a whole, American kids are not polite. They whine when asked to help, and some demand special treatment.
Warner says that a lack of compassion and empathy is rampant in today’s hypercompetitive parenting culture. Children are being groomed to look out for themselves, and some parents view other children more as potential obstacles to their development — rather than comrades.
A deeper understanding of courtesy — that we do things like make eye contact and say hello or goodbye because these behaviors let others feel that they are worthy of respect — is practically absent from our parenting culture today. It’s far more important to parents us that children be in touch with their own feelings.
So are the rules wrong?
Yet as professors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton share in the New York Times, “Hello, Stranger,” we have been raised not to make eye contact, to stay as far away from other people as the space allows, and for the love of life, don’t talk to anyone.
Dunn cites a social experiment done in Chicago. Commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. The other group was told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. At the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.
Most people thought it would be tough to start a conversation with a stranger, but not a single one reported that they were snubbed, and all agreed that the conversations were pleasant.
So it seems that by avoiding contact, we are following a collective assumption that turns out to be false. That is, we miss out on an opportunity for connection. Even in business scenarios where efficiency is touted as fundamental, customers who engaged in conversation with cashiers left more cheerful than those who got in and got out. Maybe, efficiency is overrated.
The benefits of connecting with others also turn out to be contagious.
We should refuse to accept a world where people look at one another as though through air. When we talk to strangers, we stand to gain much more than the “me time” we might lose.
So if we inherently know that acknowledging or talking to a stranger will not cause a catastrophic embarrassment, why don’t we start conversations? Because NOT engaging a stranger has its own contagion — a pluralistic ignorance — in that everyone would like to talk but no one thinks anyone else wants to talk. Human beings are social animals. We can’t forget that.
James Johnson gives us several reasons to talk to strangers:
▪ For travelers, it makes the commute faster.
▪ For the business person, it can enhance your own professional network
▪ For the insecure, talking to strangers can help you overcome fear and confidence issues
▪ For the do-it-yourselfer, talking to strangers helps you work on your listening and question asking skills. It isn’t about you talking.
▪ For the enlightened, talking to strangers can take your old views and completely shatter them. It can also provide inspiration for new ideas. It expands your mind and your own knowledge base.
▪ For the simplest yet most important reason, talking to strangers is kind. It gives you the power to make someone smile.
Good for YOU
When you don’t greet someone in your day-to-day interactions, you miss out on a human connection. You miss out on the opportunity to learn something about someone. You miss out on an exchange in energy that occurs when two or more humans come together.
Acknowledging and being nice to the people you encounter and society is good, but most importantly, it is good for you. It doesn’t require any more effort than the other routine things we do everyday, but it does make a big difference.
Saying hello gives you:
▪ Confidence and optimism. Most of the time when you say hello, that greeting is returned. This little success promotes confidence within and teaches you that people don’t bite. It helps you feel good about yourself.
▪ Business and social success. People like friendly people. Saying hello to strangers is no-risk practice for being friendly at work and in social settings.
▪ A widened circle of influence. According to Terry R. Bacon, author of “Elements of Influence: The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead,” “People who are highly skilled at being friendly and sociable with strangers and building close relationships are more than twice as influential as people who are less skilled at sociability and relationship building.”
▪ Fun. A chance encounter with a tourist from London can lead to an interesting conversation that will have you thinking all day. Will you ever see the person again? Probably not, but you can enjoy the encounter.
▪ Good karma. By saying hello, good morning and thank you, you are acknowledging another person, providing recognition. In many cultures, this is the equivalent of giving someone a blessing for the day.
Saying hello to strangers doesn’t guarantee that everyone will respond. But it is still worth it. If people do not acknowledge your greeting, give them the benefit of the doubt. Be polite and forget about it. You really don’t know what’s going on with them at the moment.
But when the moment is right, you’ll know it. Whether it’s during the arrival of the elevator, grabbing a cart at the grocery store, or waiting to order your latte, try it! Say hello to one new person each day for a month and make it a habit. See how it changes your life.
Don’t wait for others to acknowledge you. Go out and acknowledge others, and watch the impact it has in your life. Watch the impact it has on your career. Then watch the impact it has on you.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.