Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why Can't We All Just Say Hi?

Ever since I came to the US, I have noticed (and appreciated) how polite the people here are. Store clerks and shoppers greet each other while shopping. Passengers thank bus drivers while getting off the bus. Strangers smile at each other while passing each other on the street. People always, always tell you that you're welcome when you thank them. I realise it may sound weird to any US/Western readers that I am citing these as examples of extraordinary politeness, but in India these things do not happen. At all. There are complex sociological reasons for this difference for sure, but that is fodder for another post. We will not get into them here.

One thing that strikes me about American politeness though, is how so many of the greetings these polite people call out at each other are interrogative. You might hear "What's up?" or "How's it going?" or "How are you?", depending on the formality of the situation. The expected, and completely rote answer to such a question generally aims to reassure the questioner that you are fine, and inquires about their general well-being in turn. Again, American readers might think it weird that I spell this out, but it really is not obvious to foreigners. Many US universities inform their international students about this convention in orientation. Unless specifically told how to respond, many of us actually do start telling people making polite inquiries how we're actually doing. In great detail. You can see, of course, how that might get ugly.

All this is fine, of course. International students can, and do get used to quaint local customs. What is exasperating about this very American way of greeting your fellow men is that many of them take a hit-and-run approach to it. "How's it going?", one of my colleagues once asked as she walked by me in the hallway, with nary a pause to hear any rejoinder. "How are you?", asked a friend from my department as he stepped into an elevator I had just stepped out of. "Hey Kunal, whats up?" shouted an acquaintance as we passed each other on escalators going opposite ways (yes, this actually happened). Now my regular readers know I have trouble responding in time to unfamiliar greetings, so it will not surprise them that I reacted to these situations by gaping open-mouthed at the greeters. But I seriously doubt that even someone born in this country, with quick, socially conditioned reflexes could have gotten out an "I'm great, how are you?" in time. Well, maybe auctioneers. But not normal people, that's what I am saying.

I'm sure this kind of thing happens all over the country. Well meaning people, conditioned by long years of such behavior, unthinkingly call out such greetings in situations where they cannot possibly be answered. When the equally conditioned response is not forthcoming, however, at least some of these people must feel nonplussed, irritated even. Surely this causes some ill-feeling, and ill-feeling is something this country can do without right now. I therefore propose that the US, as a nation, should collectively stop using interrogative greetings at all times. Instead of asking "What's up?", say "Hi!". Instead greeting your boss with a cheery "How are you?", say "Good morning!" instead. If the entire nation takes urgent action, surely the amount of bad feeling will decrease. Who knows, that might even decrease the spate of incivility, racism, heckling, mic-snatching and wanton frog-boiling that has been troubling the country for the past couple of months. And that can only be a good thing for America.

(This post has been slightly edited for length and style since it first appeared)

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