Why are we so friendly


Jake Neuffer, Editor-in-Chief

Imagine this: you’re walking down the street with your earbuds in. You’re in the zone, thinking about all the things you have to do today. Suddenly, walking towards you on the same side of the sidewalk, a familiar face appears. Oh no, you know him. You don’t know how you know him, but you definitely know him. You begin to sweat as the two of you approach. You look down at your phone, desperately hoping he doesn’t say anything. But wait, what if he says hi? You can’t be looking down at your phone if he says hi. As you pass by each other like on some kind of sick horror movie-carnival ferris wheel, you look up at him and give an awkward, painful half-smile.

This is a dramatized version of the kind of encounter most people go through every day. We feel compelled by society to say hello to people we pass on the street, whether we want to or not. I recently read a story from a college student, talking about how people on his campus tend to ignore each other when walking by and even ignoring hello’s. The author of the story rationalizes this behaviothe science behind greetings by reasoning that humans have a very limited amount of mental energy and need to put on “perceptual blinders” in order to conserve it. He concludes his article by claiming that, in the future, people should take off these perceptual blinders in order to appear more friendly and open. This kind of attitude is flawed, though. Why should we be trying to appear more open and friendly? In most situations, these greetings are simply a formality, anyways. For example, nobody really wants to know how you’re doing when they say, “How are you?”; they’re just saying hi with a canned greeting. This leads to a general assumption of fakeness; we don’t really think people mean what they say when they greet us.

“In Russia, people don’t even say hi to each other on the street” said Peter Udalov, an Oakton student who lived in Russia. “Everyone in Russia is an introvert. And everyone who’s an extrovert gets put down by introverts” he said. “There is a huge difference between people who live in metropolitan areas and people who live in, say, the outskirts of Moscow. In Moscow, nobody pays attention to each other, but in the outskirts, everyone’s just worried about getting mugged” he continued. This marks a stark cultural contrast with America, where greetings are common, even expected, between strangers.

Perhaps Russia, a country known for the coldness of its people, isn’t the best example of how the rest of the world operates. But this is a common theme whenever differences between Americans and Europeans, or Americans and Asians, or Americans and Africans, come up in conversation. Americans are over friendly in public and, seemingly, disingenuous. Being a little fake in order to meet societal expectations aren’t a uniquely American thing, though, and span across all cultures. Japanese culture famously holds bowing as a sign of respect (emphasis on sign of respect, not as a true expression of respect), and phrases such as “I’m sorry for your loss” are commonly expected even for people we’ve just met.

Why do we do this to ourselves, then? Why do we subject ourselves to forced hellos and awkward smiles? The answer lies primarily in evolutionary science. Humans are social animals and crave inclusion. Greeting people we pass on the street is a way to make them feel included, as well as making ourselves feel included by ingratiating ourselves in their social group. Studies have shown that human brains respond to exclusion similar to how they respond to physical pain. Americans, in particular, play into this inclusivity by being openly very friendly. This can most likely be explained by America’s comparatively prosperous and mobile culture. Not only has the United States never experienced devastation on the scale of the world wars, but the mobility of American people and the prevalence of immigrant communities has made making friends in foreign communities made friendliness an essential skill for Americans.

This isn’t to say that asking people how they’re doing is a completely hollow act that we shouldn’t do anymore. Clearly it does have a purpose, even if it’s not explicitly what we say it is. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be aware of the subtext to our greetings, even when we use them.