We don’t always say hello. The worst part of it is that we know each other — and maybe in a different context, we would say hi, pretend to be excited to see each other, and engage in a polite, boring small talk ritual. When not at a back-to-school barbeque, however, I pass probably dozens of people on campus without acknowledging them. It’s not that I don’t like them (except in some rare cases). It’s usually that I don’t feel like I know them well enough, or that I feel I’m not invested enough in our relationship for me to make an effort.
It’s an elaborate ritual: someone generally pulls out their phone in an effort to look as if they haven’t seen the other person. Or maybe someone will suddenly look very interested in the way their shoes hit the pavement. Others are more brazen and don’t even pretend to have an excuse to not say hello; they just walk right past.
I know it shouldn’t bother me — after all, this is so minor — but it does. Saying hello to someone isn’t the “be all end all” of a relationship; time spent together (meals, conversations, etc.) is the true measure of a friendship. That said, it takes almost nothing to acknowledge someone, and it can sometimes be more meaningful than we think. A few weeks ago, when I was going through a really hard time, someone I didn’t know too well greeted me on the walked between classes. An acknowledgement of my existence took probably no effort on their part, but it made me feel so much more valued on a day when I needed it. Wow, I thought, she cares about me enough to say hello. I went through my rough day with a little more of a smile than I had before — and a greater inclination to spend time with that individual in the future.
Even after that experience, though, I still don’t acknowledge everyone, even if I know I should. Sometimes I feel like it would be awkward to say something; other times, I’ve convinced myself someone doesn’t like me, so why say hello? But if someone whom I don’t yet know very well greeted me on the way to class, would it really be awkward? Maybe a little bit, I’ll admit, but it will certainly make any future interaction a lot smoother and encourage the other person to say something next time. I’ve since gotten a few meals with the girl who said hello to me, not to mention that we now greet each other on a regular basis.
Imagine for a moment what would happen if we all said hi to each other, even to people we don’t know too well. Such a change in campus culture would likely mean that people feel more welcome in spaces they normally aren’t greeted in. Making greetings a part of Princeton’s personality would encourage interaction between individuals who don’t normally feel as if they have anything to say to one another simply because they’ve never tried.
Just think about how many people you’ve probably ignored today. I’ve ignored probably six or seven — and I didn’t gain anything from it. If I had gone a little out of my comfort zone and offered them a smile, I might have felt a little better about myself (come on, I’m not that altruistic) and they might have gone through their day with a little more spring in their step, just like I did when someone I barely knew said hello.
I’m not saying you should give a bear hug to everyone who walks past you (although maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing). But it’s worth noting how much a smile, a compliment, or a greeting can affect someone’s day. If for no other reason than to make someone’s bad day a little brighter, just say hello. It might make a world of difference.
Leora Eisenberg is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.