Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Lost Art of Hello

It should be easy. The Mishnah says “one should greet everyone with a pleasant face”. At first glance, this Mishnah seems redundant. Doesn’t everyone say hello?

Actually, saying hello is not so simple. Yes, we imagine that we greet others properly. But in actuality, life can get in the way. When we’re rushed or stressed or haven’t had our first cup of coffee, (my personal weakness), the greeting we give is often meager and grumpy. Without a good mood it’s hard to give a truly welcoming hello.

And that’s too bad. A greeting is too important to be a rote reaction dependent on a passing mood. A proper greeting is a mini-mission, an attempt to add warmth and cheer to another person’s day. You must block out annoyances and distractions, and offer a genuine person to person welcome.

Unfortunately, the welcoming hello is a lost art. People don’t say hello anymore. We certainly don’t address strangers, even when crowded together in an elevator. In fact, big city etiquette demands we avoid making eye contact, acting as if the other person isn’t really there. But we don’t only ignore strangers. Even with acquaintances, our greetings are designed to offer a minimum of friendship with a maximum of time efficiency.

Even worse is how we treat proper greetings with contempt. People who offer greetings are often held at a distance, as if they are some sort of threat. In particular, I am shocked how people in the service field are often abused. We turn our heads away from Wal-Mart’s greeters, and shout our complaints at the secretary before she has a chance to say good morning. Their welcoming hellos are usually ignored.

Small towns do things differently. As the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies noted, big cities develop because it is in the economic and political interests of those who live there. They are instrumental societies based on personal interests. By contrast, in small towns the community is an end in itself. People are there because they desire living in a community. That’s why strangers will receive far more hellos in Thunder Bay than they will in downtown Manhattan. Small towns know what community is all about.

It’s time to bring that small town spirit into our communities, however large they are. Isn’t it distressing that on Shabbat, in Montreal or Brooklyn or Miami, people don’t automatically say “good Shabbos” in the street to each other? Isn’t it wrong for a visitor to enter a synagogue without even one person offering a hello?

I am proud that in our synagogue there is a small cadre of people who perform the lost art of hello. When someone enters, they greet them and make them feel at home. Armed with a few words of conversation, they keep the spirit of community alive. Their mission is simple yet holy: “greet everyone with a pleasant face”.

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