Talking to Strangers

As noted in my 11/2/09 “Off The Cuff” blog, I’m baffled by the number of people incapable or unwilling to return a simple greeting from a fellow human being.  This time of year in Southwest Florida there are many people riding bicycles or walking through their neighborhoods or on the beach.  I’m one of them.  I’m the one who says “Hello” or “Good morning” to you.  More often than not, you ignore me.

I used to think others didn’t hear me greet them.  Then I thought maybe they don’t speak or understand English.  There are lots of international tourists and part-time residents in the area, so that’s entirely possible.  But as the number of ignorers grew, I decided, nope. They’re just rude.  But why are they so rude?  What does it take away from anyone to return a friendly greeting?

 I pondered this to the point where I’d begun considering my own unscientific research project.  Each time my greeting wasn’t returned, I planned to stop the greetee and ask why they didn’t say “hello” or “good morning” in return.  This is the only way I knew to satisfy my own curiosity.  But today I met Elio and he changed my mind.

While riding my bicycle rather leisurely through a nearby upscale neighborhood which I’ve done quite often, and after being continually ignored by almost everyone I greeted, I rode past Elio who works for the company that cares for the landscaping throughout the development.  I was riding in the bike path by the side of the road.  Elio was working in a grassy area as I passed by.  I barely saw him and didn’t expect him to notice me.  In fact, I was almost past him when he called out, “Good morning” to me.  I nearly fell off my bike in surprise.  He had taken the initiative!  This was virtually unprecedented.  I had to call back over my shoulder to return his greeting.

 I continued on a few hundred feet when it occurred to me that I shouldn’t ask the ones who don’t return my greeting why they don’t.  I should ask the ones who do why they do.  By the time I turned around, Elio was in his truck driving away but I followed and saw him turn into a nearby parking lot and stop.  I cruised up to his window and asked him if he said good morning to everyone he saw.  He smiled and said he did.  The reason?  “Because I almost killed myself.”  I said, “Oh, and you’re happy to be alive?”  And he said, “Yes.”

 I told him about my research project and I think it amused him.  We talked about faith and God and a host of other things, but the bottom line?  Elio believes, and I agree with him, that there are just a lot of unhappy people in the world.  That’s why they don’t respond to someone acknowledging their existence.  Maybe they aren’t aware that God acknowledges their existence all the time.   Probably, they don’t think it is a good morning.

 My friend Sue visited a few years ago and as we walked the beach together, she cheerily greeted anyone walking in the opposite direction, which at the time amused me.  After many of her greetings were ignored she looked at me and said, “Have you ever noticed how many grumpy people there are in the world?”

 Back then, I don’t think I had noticed, but I’m certainly aware of it now.  The happier I become, the more startling the distinction between me and them.  And the more it saddens me.

When I began working for Starbucks six years ago, being “legendary” was drilled into us during our training.  This meant, you not only acknowledged a customer’s arrival with a greeting, you added to it with a “How are you today?” type of addition.  And when a customer left you didn’t just say “Thank you.”  You included some version of “Have a good day.”  I notice how many businesses I frequent where I’m not greeted at all by a cashier or anyone else and any thanks for my business is also non-existent.  Is the rest of the world just in a bad mood?

 Instead of investigating why the grumps ignore me, I’m going to connect with the people who beat me to “the greet.”  Those are the people I want to know.  Those are the ones who get it.