Greet Expectations

The English language is very efficient. Complex ideas can be expressed in so few words that detailed, explicit conversations are often unnecessary. For example, if your wife says, “Does this dress make me look fat?,” you can convey the message of “Well, it’s not a very flattering dress because it doesn’t bring out your beautiful eyes or your gorgeous smile” simply by saying, “Yes.”

Or take what happened at the bank last week. I said this to the teller: “You’ll notice my account became overdrawn a few days ago, by $4.72, and that I made a deposit to rectify the problem less than 24 hours later. I wonder if you could possibly reverse the $25 overdraft fee you charged me, considering that I’ve been a loyal Washington Mutual customer for six years, and that it was only $4.72 and for less than 24 hours, and that I’ve never asked for such consideration before.” And the teller responded: “No.” Thus in one word she summed up her company’s entire philosophy, which is, “We will greet you warmly by name when you enter your local branch because we want you to feel comfortable and appreciated, but don’t think that means we like you or want to help you or that we have any human feelings such as ‘compassion’ or ‘understanding,’ you miserable b******.” (Hey, don’t look at me, I’m just quoting the corporate handbook.)

Probably the most efficient part of English is in the way we greet each other. In the 1800s, acquaintances would have conversations like this when they happened to pass each other in the street:

WOMAN: Good morning to you, Mr. Harkenfarken.
MAN: And a good morning to you as well, Mrs. Hooganfloogan.
WOMAN: How does the day find you, sir?
MAN: It finds me very well, thank you so much indeed for asking. How are you, madam?
WOMAN: I am most superbly well, thank you.

I don’t know how anything ever got done in those days, what with all the time consumed by being cordial. No wonder nothing good got invented until the 20th century. Today, the preceding conversation might be condensed into this:

MAN: Hey.

And with the right inflection and body language, all the same information can be expressed, without all the wordiness and curtsying and hat-tipping and what-have-you.

So it’s important to choose your standard greeting, the one you use all the time when you run into acquaintances, very carefully. It has to be something you can say automatically and effortlessly, so tongue-twisters are a bad idea. Also, since you’ll be using it in a wide variety of circumstances, it should not be obscene.

Some other standard greetings you should avoid:

“Howdy do?”
“What’s cookin’, Smokey?”
“Whaddup, G?”
“There he is!”
“Ahoy, wench.”

I think it would be fun to greet everyone the way you greet a dog, rubbing the person’s head and saying (if his name is Bob), “Who’s a good boy?! Is Bob a good boy?! Yes he is! Yes he is! Who’s a good boy?!” Let’s start this trend. You first.

My standard salutation is “Hey, how’s it going?,” though sometimes it is abbreviated to just “Hey.” Either way, it’s very simple, and it requires no thinking on the other person’s part, because he can just respond with his own standard greeting, whatever it may be. Even though mine ends with a question mark, an answer is not necessarily required. In fact, in modern society, this is a perfectly valid conversation:

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Hey” doesn’t really answer the question of how it’s going, but “How’s it going?” doesn’t really mean I want to know how it’s going, either. If I REALLY want to know how it’s going, I’ll say, “How ARE you?” — quite different from “How are YOU?,” which is the same as “How’s it going?” — and stop and talk to the person. But for just passing by, I deliver the “How’s it going?” and continue on about my business.

My roommate Greg has one that throws me off every time. I don’t believe he grasps the philosophy behind casual greetings, because his requires an actual ANSWER. He always says: “What’s going on?” Now, he says it in the same tone of voice that you’d say “Hello” or “Hey there” or whatever. But it’s a question, and it’s a very open-ended question at that. “Pretty good” or “fine” would not be appropriate responses to this, nor would the delivery of a standard greeting. “What’s going on?” seems to demand a considered response.

And so every time he says it — which, since we live together, can be three or four times a day — I fumble for an answer. Does he actually want to know what’s going on, like what I’m DOING? Well, I don’t always know what I’m doing. Maybe I’m not doing anything. But I hate to just say “Nothing,” because then it sounds like I’m a slacker who’s not doing anything. So I’ve started responding, “WHY THE THIRD DEGREE, GREG?!?” He thinks I’m joking, and that saves me from answering the question. Still, it’s a lot of work for what’s supposed to be casual conversation. See the problems I have to put up with?

My standard greeting used to be "Hello," though I was also a fan of "Good morning," too, when entering the workplace first thing in the morning, when I had a regular workplace. Lately I've shifted to "Hey, how's it going?," which can be as cool/casual (for when I encounter other guys and have to be all manly and stuff) or as friendly as I want it to be.

Discussion question: What is your "standard greeting"?