A greeting is a minimal yet meaningful conferral of honor on a person for just being a person. With it, not only do we acknowledge and validate, but we also put at ease and wish well. We announce that we intend no harm and express our concern for the well-being of others. As we do so, we invite others to look upon us with the same benign disposition we have toward them. This is the stuff civility is made of.
And yet we often play the game of invisibility. We see someone we know coming our way, but instead of saying hello or even just nodding our acknowledgment, we proceed as if that someone were invisible or we weren't there. Is a glimmer of acknowledgment in a fleeting encounter so burdensome? Are we shy? Are we lazy? Are we prey to misguided pride? Are we so goal-directed that we won't bother with anything that doesn't advance our progress toward our goal, whatever that might be? Are our souls shrinking beyond repair?
We can't feel gregarious every moment of our lives. At times we will be turned inward, unavailable to others, protective of our space and frame of mind. And that's all right. Sometimes we need that to recharge after the great expenditures of physical and nervous energy required by today's life. We can, however, do without the invisibility game. It is insincere and petty. Let's at least nod each other into existence. And let's not play another game, either, that of waiting to be acknowledged before acknowledging in turn. I hope that we will always have enough self-esteem to feel that being first in greeting doesn't entail loss of face.
The Three Strikes of Incivility
As Judy waits in line at the bookstore's cash register, a woman nonchalantly slips ahead of her. Where is the harm of that? The rude act—a lack of acknowledgment—causes harm in at least three ways. First of all, Judy is inconvenienced by being made to wait longer. She has other things to do, she needs to complete her business as soon as possible, and she can't.
Second, Judy is harmed by the woman's dismissal of her presence. The woman acts as though Judy didn't exist or her existence didn't matter. The loss of face makes Judy perturbed and resentful.
Third, if Judy feels that she should do something to redress the slight, this will perturb her as well. She will wonder whether she really wants to bring the issue to the woman's attention. Is it worth her while? Will an unpleasant exchange ensue? Is the incident going to escalate? If she doesn't react, is she being cowardly? Yes, rudeness begets conflict with others but also conflict within ourselves, and the latter can prove as hurtful as the former.