Saturday, 30 May 2015

Off Topic: Hello! Acknowledging Others and Why it Matters

Recently, I experienced a hellish train ride home. It was a cold day, I had battled rain for most of the walk down to the train station, and I was exhausted from a long and emotionally draining day at work. The train's heating/air conditioning was playing up for most of the journey, the book I had bought with me was a poorly written piece of what is not usually called such on this blog, and the person sitting next to me was one of those annoying people who treat their tablet like it's a typewriter and are constantly bumping everyone around them with their elbows and then not apologising. By the end of the journey I was tired, I was irritated and it was getting mightily close to dinner time and I was hungry. All I wanted to do was get the fuck home. And then, when the train arrived at my station, I had one of those moment. When I got to the door, there was someone who I know, albeit not terribly well, but well enough that it would be rude not to acknowledge their presence. So, swallowing my feelings of all I want to do is get off this bloody train I turned to offer a polite nod of the head and a quick hello. I'm sure you know the version, the one where basically you're acknowledging the other person's presence, letting them know that everything is cool, whilst not actively seeking any further communication. Mid-nod, however, I was cut off by an extremely sarcastic look--basically the non-verbal way of being told to fuck off. And you know what? I felt hurt about that. Snubbed. Here I was, about to make an effort to do, what I believe to be good manners, only to be cut off by someone who deemed me unworthy of the same courtesy.

The whole thing got me thinking about greetings. Why do we greet people? I've always seen it as a ritual that is done to help the other person feel at ease. The best greetings are the kind that are appropriate to the situation--for example, I would greet my eight year old niece very differently to how I would greet my boss. Still, the core message would be the same--your presence is acknowledged. When we refuse to acknowledge someone, or give them the silent treatment, we sent that person a message that they are somehow, in our estimation, unworthy of basic courtesy.

The only problem with communication is that we all give and receive messages differently, and we all have varying levels of social skills. When I say hello, or acknowledge someone, typically, all that is meant is hello. It is a sign of good will. That does not mean, however, that the message is taken as such. I find that some people can take something as simple as a hello as a sign of extreme and intrusive interest in their lives. Other people regard it as a nuisance that needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible, or in the case that I illustrated above, not at all. And then there are the people who become rude and insulting so that they then never have to worry about an awkward encounter with you again, because they can be sure then that you do not like them.

All three point to a lack of social skills.

Very few people are going to be that interested in the personal lives of a near stranger, and anyone who is will make themselves obvious in another way, sooner or later. When you regard someone as a nuisance, the trick is to send them on their way without making it look like you think they are a nuisance--this is probably why the expressions "Have a great day," or "Talk to you later," were invented. It is a way of sending someone on their way without being an arsehole about it. And, finally, if you go down the path of insulting someone when you first meet them, then maybe you have bigger issues that you need to work on and no I'm not going to give you the help that you don't want from me anyway.

On the other hand, just because someone doesn't say hello back, does not always mean that there is something wrong with them, or us, or that there is something wrong the relationship that we have with that person. Not everything is an intentional snub. Sometimes people just don't see us, hear us, or might have very valid reasons why talking to another person just isn't appropriate at that point in time. Just as it is not nice to ignore someone, it's not okay to interrupt a conversation, to force yourself on someone who is obviously busy or stressed, or someone who has made it clear that they are not interested in speaking to you. Even if their actions hurt, the appropriate response is to stop speaking with that person. If it's not an intentional snub, these things seem to have a way of resolving themselves. 

In closing, consider this. When someone says hello to you, they are acknowledging your presence and are trying to make you feel at ease in their company. Unless the person doing the greeting has a severe lack of social skills, or a poor sense of humour, it's rarely about trying to make someone else uncomfortable, to invade their personal space. By not acknowledging them, you are sending a message to that person that they are beneath you or unworthy. On the other hand, while it's polite to acknowledge someone, being ignored is not always necessarily about snubbing the other person. Before you write someone off as rude, consider the situation and take note of how they treat you next time that you see them.