Family

Why We Should Be Friendlier to Strangers

'It just makes us feel better when another person acknowledges us in a positive manner'

Have you noticed that greeting strangers politely has all but gone the way of the dodo bird? Between immersion in our own devices and schedules that are more packed than ever, we no longer invest in sending good energy a stranger’s way.

Are we just busy — or do we really not trust one another any more? The results of a 2016 survey by The Washington Post showed that only 31 percent of respondents felt “most people can be trusted.” Yet a whopping 67 percent said, “You need to be very careful in dealing with people.”

There are regional differences in social reciprocity.

I noticed this antisocial behavior at my gym — I go every morning after dropping my young daughter off at school. This workout space is packed with people of different ages, sexes, and ethnicities. I decided to start an experiment: For two weeks, I would purposely look people in the eye, smile, and say, “Hello.”

In an effort to increase my numbers, I did this experiment with people both inside and outside the facility. If he or she returned the greeting and asked how I was doing, I came back with a cheery, “Fine, thanks!”

Needless to say, I found that a lot of people just do not want to talk — or even grunt in the direction of another person.

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Some, I think, actually think it’s beneath them to say hello. A few months ago a friend of mine encountered a coworker in her office break room. My friend said hello and got nothing in response. Apparently, the two made eye contact early in their “lack-of-conversation” standoff, but the other person then looked away.

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“Who does he think he is?” my friend asked. That’s right: It doesn’t feel good to not be acknowledged.

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Maybe this individual was worrying about a project and was absorbed in his own thoughts; or perhaps he was just busy. Still, these behaviors could spell trouble for society at large.

“Reports have indicated the impact of communication technology on how we socialize,” Joseph C. Guthrie, a Hardin, Montana, general and forensic psychiatrist, told LifeZette. “People tend to focus on and increasingly interact through tiny screens, emojis, texts and tweets, and this may decrease the perceived relevance of, or the opportunity for, direct social reciprocity — like smiles and greetings.”

As you might expect, there are regional differences in social reciprocity.

“My smile and ‘howdy’ are returned up and down the hallways of the state hospital where I work in rural Appalachia,” said Guthrie. “But I tend not to have the same interaction and response when walking the Magnificent Mile in Chicago or taking the subway in Manhattan.”

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There are individual differences as well. For example, some people tend to be more outwardly and actively socially engaging (extroverts) than others, who may be more reserved in their interpersonal interactions (introverts).

“It should be noted that some psychiatric conditions, such as autistic spectrum disorder, include impaired social reciprocity in the diagnostic criteria,” added Dr. Guthrie. “Stroke patients who suffer paralysis of facial muscles have improved quality of life and mental function if they have therapy to improve their ability to maintain facial expressions.”

“It makes us feel better when another person acknowledges us in a positive manner.”

It is worthwhile to make inroads in how we greet one another.

Guthrie believes smiling and eye contact affirm trust and promote pre-social behavior while activating the brain’s reward center. This can be beneficial in the clinical setting, in improving patients’ satisfaction with their care.

“It just makes us feel better when another person acknowledges us in a positive manner, through a social smile or greeting,” he explained. “That positive effect is most robust when we return the happy facial expression.”

Chris Woodward is a reporter for American Family News and OneNewsNow.com. Based in Mississippi, he is also a contributor to OneMillionDads.com and EngageMagazine.net.

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