What type of person are you? The type that – in case you encounter someone on the streets that you (barely) know – deliberately looks away to avoid an awkward “Hello!” or even small talk because you might be “in a hurry” or “don’t look the part” post-workout? Or are you the type of person that enjoys every opportunity to talk to people in the streets and have a brief and friendly chat? Maybe you are the type that just doesn’t care and purposefully avoids social interaction because “why bother?”.
I know, “it depends”. But I’m certain that there is a general tendency. Mainly because we tend to be either more introvert or extrovert character-wise. We either thrive in social situations or they drain our energy. We are also more or less agreeable, tactful, friendly and sociable. It’s not a bad thing at all if you’re the type that doesn’t feel like having small talk or rather look at your toes than saying “Hi!” to someone you've just spotted in the streets. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be a judge of good or bad behavior. This is merely – as so many things written in my blogs – one part self-reflection and one part openly dealing with my personal daily struggles. Therefore, after observing my own behavior and its consequences over a longer period of time and after considering what I’d think is a better approach, I’d like to make the bold suggestion that it is everyone’s duty to be kind and to greet people they know in whatever setting out of sheer courtesy – at least in my humble opinion.
I totally get that you might ask yourself why I’d make such a bold statement without even knowing you or your personal situation. Here’s my attempt at an explanation. I grew up in a small village with roughly 800 inhabitants. The next bigger town had close to 20.000 people. If you think about it, chances are pretty high that you regularly bump into people that you know. Funnily, even here in Shanghai with its roughly 25 million inhabitants I run into people that I know or have met at parties more and more frequently after living here for 2 years. So, no matter where you live, you probably have these weird, unplanned situations on a regular basis where you meet someone you know and therefore need to consider being social or anti-social.
Personally, I've been taught to greet people in the streets. I’ve especially been taught that it is as important to greet people that I don’t know – at least in our small village but also in most of the companies that I’ve worked for. And there's a plethora of good reasons for it. For a start, people that you do not know might know you. Interestingly, this happens in small villages as much as it happens in professional settings, may it be small, medium-sized or even big companies. I have been working for companies with 8, 100, 6.500 and more than 120.000 employees. If you or one of your team-members or colleagues do something recognizable and meaningful for your company people might know about you or the department you are working for. And they will approach you at lunch breaks, in corridors, on your way from and to work. It works the same way in small towns and villages. If your father, mother, brother, sister or dog did something that people might know about because it’s been in the newspapers or part of the local gossip, they pretty much know you. For example, if your father has an important job in a local company, if your mother is involved in social activities in the community or if your brother plays soccer successfully, chances are high that your name and a rough description of you has been thrown around quite a few times as well.
It therefore seems to be important to behave well in every social setting. You personally might not care about what people think of you. But it can make a big difference for your colleagues or family members if you make a bad impression or show anti-social behavior out in the streets. Chances are high that it will have a negative effect on the people that are associated with you.
What’s even more important than the impact of our behavior on people that are close to us is the impact on our own social identity. Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s). And the social identity theory is Henri Tajfel's greatest contribution to psychology. Our social identity is basically defined by the groups we belong to and the people we associate ourselves with. It also defines how we interact in social settings. Most importantly, our social identity needs to be maintained. Belonging is one of the very basic human needs and a very important factor in regards to intrinsic motivation. Actively trying to isolate yourself from social groups - and yes, the 800-people village is a social group as much as the 120.000-people company - is therefore not a very smart thing to do. To put it in plain words: refusing to take care of your social identity means risking a key aspect of your mental health.
Maintaining our own social identity is one thing. Appreciating other people’s identities is a different but equally important one. And it's quite easy. For example, by saying “Hi!” plus using other people's names. Yes, people have names! And usually they are quite easy to remember. And why is that important? Well, think about conversations you’ve had with people using your name versus conversations where you’ve talked 1-to-1 with someone else but this person never said your name. Did it make a difference? Which one did you prefer? Whom would you like to speak to again? I believe it does make a difference. Appreciate other people’s identity, try to remember names and use them.
Taking all of this into consideration, the conclusion might be that being kind and sociable, greeting others in the streets or in corridors using their names and maintaining your social health is mainly good for you. But hold on for a minute. It’s not only good for you. It’s good for society. While we are drifting towards anonymity due to shifting our day-to-day lives more and more into the digital world, we unlearn what we know about good social behavior. The past 2 years with all its difficulties might’ve contributed to that. I’d highly encourage all of us to keep our social skills alive, be kind and be human, and say "Hello!" to others even if we might have a bad hair day…