Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Hi, hello, howdy"

I am confused by some peoples' timidity. Like most things I think about, this comes as a result of some event, or in this case many recurring events.

So there I was...walking down the hall. Coming the opposite direction is someone I've never met. In varying occurrences, the approaching stranger is a youth, a college-aged person, or a middle-aged adult. As we approach in the hall the glance perhaps briefly at me while we are still far away but spend nearly all the approaching time looking at the floor, the walls, the drinking fountain etc. As we pass I offer a kind smile and a friendly "Hi, hello, howdy" etc...

What so often happens from this point is that they either say nothing or mumble some response usually while still looking at the floor. Now I know that I can be a somewhat intense person from time to time but I don't feel like it's really possible to be too intimidating in the 10 or less seconds for me to pass someone in the hallway. There's no reason to act like I'm some dignitary and they're some lowly thing I'm going to punish if they make eye contact.

Somehow we've convinced ourselves as a culture that we have to be afraid of strangers. I don't mean healthy kind of fear that a very young child should have of people they don't know, but a kind of fear where greeting someone unfamiliar becomes a greater chore than we can muster, where we are so adverse to opening up even the tiniest bit of ourselves that we shame ourselves instead.

Now, please don't confuse me for saying that this is about people acknowledging me as we pass. I'm not anymore important than anyone else. It's about those other people. I want them to be more self-confident, more comfortable. It's for their own good, not mine. If you can't pass a stranger in a hallway, how can you be an effective employee having to deal with different people all the time, how can you talk to your family and friends about important things in life? You can't. This is no proof, but maybe it's an insight into why our society is the way it is.

We don't respect ourselves enough to have confidence to handle life so we go through it barely getting by, each social setting a stress test we have to get through until we can be alone again (often with our technology, which is a while other post for a different day about how we struggle speaking face to face but can text, facebook, tweet etc for hours) It shouldn't be this way. What sucks is that we all know it, but because of the nature of the problem it prevents us from fixing it.

I have a general policy that you're not allowed to complain about something unless you're willing to do something about it and also a policy that you ought not ask others to do something you're not willing to do yourself.

As to the first part, I encourage you to go out there and be nice to people you come across. I'm not saying you have to strike up a conversation with everyone you meet (unless you've got the time), but at least acknowledge them with a smile and a greeting. Even if you're not comfortable at first, just try it. I promise it can't be any worse that passing in silence hoping for the awkward moment to pass. If you accidentally do something weird it's okay because they're just a passing stranger and you'll never see them again, so don't worry. After a few times you'll become comfortable. You'll feel better about yourself and you might even impact someone else's day for the better.

As to the second part, I'll keep after it myself and maybe one day I'll meet up with one of you that decided to be confident too and it'll be the best hallway experience ever.


You may have noticed earlier when I talked about the ages of approaching strangers that there were two groups I left out; the children and those beyond middle age. These two groups, in my observation, don't have this problem and I think there's one simple reason: They don't care. When you're very young you have no or at least a very limited concept of who you are or what people think of you. There's no reason to be afraid of the stranger. It doesn't even occur to them that the stranger might be someone better than them that they ought to defer to or that it might be awkward to be too friendly.

Those beyond middle age also don't care, but for different reasons. They know the reasons why someone might be afraid to talk to a stranger, because they used to be that age, but have since decided those are dumb reasons and so ignore them. Such is the wisdom that comes with age.

So get out there, be confident, share a word, share a smile. Take the wisdom of the children and the elders and don't worry about it.