Being born to Midwestern parents in a rural Illinois town taught me that there are a few things in life that you do without questioning.
Always dress in layers. Never lose faith that the Bulls will relive their golden era. And greet people, even if they’re strangers. After all, it’s what any decent human would do.
I carried this convention with me to college and always attempted to acknowledge others. Whether it was the professor I passed on the sidewalk, the girl on the adjacent elliptical trainer or the guy in line at Snack Bar, I reflexively made eye contact, smiled and nodded – even if we’d never met. Unfortunately, I soon realized that few folks here return the favor. People whip out their phones, locate a riveting patch of dirt on the ground or (my favorite) simply stare straight ahead and refuse to meet my gaze, pretending as if I am not directly in front of them.
In my household, this behavior is absolutely unacceptable, and holding a grudge against those who snub a smile is quite justifiable. However, some recent campus encounters have made me soften this stance. I’ve met repeat snubbers who turned out to be perfectly amicable once we were formally introduced. Moreover, I’ve had friends tell me that it’s silly to expect acknowledgement from strangers. Some have even said that they find it creepy when someone they’ve never met smiles at them.
So I began to wonder, is smiling the “decent human” thing to do or simply an arbitrary custom of the community in which I was raised? Do some cultures foster smilers while others encourage snubbers?
According to Robbie Feder ’14, the answer is yes. “I don’t say hi to strangers,” admitted the Manhattan native. “With eight million people in the city, everyone’s really on the move. We don’t take the time to say hi because it’s not small town life.” According to Feder, not only are New Yorkers disinclined to smile at strangers; they are also less likely to acknowledge casual acquaintances. “If you are walking down the street and you see someone you know from class, you usually ignore them,” Feder said. “It’s not a function of unfriendliness. It’s just New York social culture.”
So how would most Manhattanites react if a stranger smiled at them on the street? “People would not find that warm and endearing,” Feder said. “People would find that strange.” However, he was quick to note that he understands why strangers in small towns acknowledge each other in passing. “At Williams, I think it’s beneficial to be outgoing and say hi,” Feder said. “It’s a small environment where we have the opportunity to know everyone. It might actually brighten someone’s day.”
But for Thobo Mogojwe ’15, who was raised in Botswana, greeting everyone is the norm. “Strangers on the street greet each other,” he said. “When you get inside a kombi [a form of public transportation that resembles a minivan], you say ‘dumelang’ to everyone inside.” Moreover, Mogojwe explained that it is commonplace for people to hold extended conversations with strangers. “There’s no sense of space. People feel very comfortable asking questions,” he said.
Since coming to the College, Mogojwe has continued this practice of greeting strangers he passes. While some students reciprocate, others do not. “There are people I see on my way to English class who never seem to see me,” he said. But at six-foot-three, Mogojwe is hard to miss. As he laughingly pointed out, students who pretend not to notice him look much more awkward than those who choose to smile or say hello.
At some schools, however, acknowledging strangers is not a choice – it’s a requirement. Washington and Lee, a liberal arts college in Lexington, Va., has a speaking tradition that requires all students to say hello to each other on campus and around town. “It’s not like if you’re walking to class and there [are] 150 people you have to say hi to all of them,” explained Ali Longobardo ’12, an art history major at Washington and Lee and sibling to a student at the College. “But if there’s only one person, and you have no idea who they are, you say hi to them. It’s a courtesy.”
Like Feder, Longobardo is a native New Yorker who was unaccustomed to being greeted by strangers prior to college. “In New York, if someone says hi to you on the street, you’re like, ‘What’s on my face?’” she said. But at Washington and Lee, verbal acknowledgement is expected. Fortunately, Longobardo has adjusted easily. “It makes the place seem so warm and welcoming,” she said. “If I’m having a terrible day, I can walk on campus and say hi to people and feel so much better.”
Longobardo believes that the speaking tradition enhances the sense of community among Washington and Lee students, encouraging conversations outside the classroom. She also believes that the tradition ultimately yields an advantage in the professional world by encouraging people to be more outgoing and socially confident.
For better or for worse, it seems that the practice of acknowledging strangers (or not) is influenced by culture – both the larger, regional culture in which we are raised and the individual character of our college. This poses an interesting problem for a school such as ours, where students hail from all corners of the globe and no policy exists for greeting others. Given that we all come to the College with different ideas about what constitutes socially appropriate behavior, what’s our standard protocol for greeting strangers?
Perhaps the solution is simple: just smile. The point is not to snag a date, intimidate competition or ingratiate yourself with the faculty. Rather, as Longobardo put it, “The point is to say to everyone, ‘Hey, we all go to school together. We’re all part of this community.’”