By Cornelia Mayr
Department of Sociology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria
Human connection starts with a friendly smile and a warm hello. How does it feel to greet someone and not have the greeting returned?
I regularly visit the local ladies’ gym, and often have contact with mothers and grandmothers. One granny occasionally brings her five-year-old grandchild with her, a young girl who does not greet nor react to warm greetings. You might presume that the child is too shy to greet a stranger. Can you really be too shy to greet? Is it a must to greet people when we do not feel that we want to do so? The social greeting etiquette made me think of the meaning of this common ritual in everyday interactions.
Greeting is one of the basic functions of socialization and the first step in connecting to people at a more personal level. We do not typically think much of the intricacies of greeting behavior. When we pass an acquaintance at work, at the university, in the grocery store or in other public places, we exchange “passing greetings.” We may simply nod our heads and say “Hello!” “Good afternoon!” “Good morning!” or “Good evening!” (Depending on the time of the day). We may state a trivial question meant to be a friendly greeting, such as “How are you?” “How was your weekend?” When meeting someone for the first time we may respond with “it’s a pleasure to meet you” or “it’s nice to meet you,” sometimes accompanied by a polite handshake (or elbow bump).
Everyday life is full of many more ways to greet someone; these examples cover just the tip of the iceberg. Sociologists try to understand the meanings and differences in greetings among various cultures, age groups, gender relations, hierarchies, and levels of familiarity. They observe specific situations and ask what makes a person choose a certain greeting over another.
What forms of greetings are considered (in)appropriate for use in formal or informal situations and why? Early approaches to study greeting rituals can be found in Adam Kendon’s film and video observations. As greetings “have an important function in the management of relations between people, Erving Goffman refers to these rituals as “supportive interchanges” (p. 75-77).
Another way to contemplate greeting norms is the following: consider some of the ways in which these supportive units of social interaction are challenged. Try to use a different greeting every time you meet someone. What social sanctions did you encounter when you failed to greet someone properly? It is through these incidences of norm breaking that we can see the (un)spoken “little ceremonies of greeting and farewell,” according to Goffman (p.41).
Now let me return to the questions at the beginning: Can you be too shy to greet? Is it a must to greet people when we do not feel to do so?
In his book, Norbert Elias points to civilizing processes and teaches us the modes of learned cultivated human behavior and manners. Elias used historical etiquette books of Germany, France, England, and Italy which, from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century onwards, gave guidance about codes of conduct that were socially acceptable among the middle and upper classes. These “manners books” told how to behave properly within specific situations in order to avoid physical and social penalties.
Many codes of conduct have become more demanding standards of emotional self-control. People developed stronger internalized self-restraints and intensified the control over their emotions. Elias originally referred to this as the “pleasure balance,” indicating the tension between the socially necessary self-control and the gratification of one’s individual desires (p. 378).
The cultivated and refined manners are especially relevant to a discussion of the ways people manage their emotions in order to be polite and act in socially desired ways. Much like we learn how to behave properly, we learn what and how to feel properly. How our emotional knowledge is acquired and experienced is shaped by processes of socialization.
A famous example of emotional socialization present Arlie Hochschild’s performance of “emotion work” and “feeling rules.” For a greeting ritual to establish a good rapport, it must raise the level of controlled emotions that, in turn, positively affects the shared mood, mutual acknowledgement, and relationship. Conversely, when someone is just not in the mood for greeting, we break this rule of interaction. Shyness, as Susie Scott defined, can be seen as a lack of “social skills” necessary to perform as the person or others would wish. In this sense, feeling too shy to greet can ostensibly challenge the social norm of a polite recognition or formal expression of goodwill. The shy person might simply be perceived by other as to “lack” the social and emotional skills to exchange a greeting. However, as Norbert Elias, Arlie Hochschild and Susie Scott’s study indicate, we can learn tactics for disguising our emotions.
The question of whether it is a must to greet when you do not feel to do so may arise other questions: do our emotions have agency? Can emotions be a reason and/or an excuse not to follow the proper rules of conduct? When and where do we categorize emotions and distinguish between acceptable, “civilized” and unacceptable, inappropriate emotions? Can you think of examples?
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