Written by Cornelia Mayr
Department of Sociology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria
A colleague and I were recently talking about our experiences with death. He asked me if I had ever seen a dead person in real life. My answer was yes and so was he. Experiences with death led to talk about the possibility of saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time.
How often do we say goodbye, see you, so long, ciao, adieu, adios, sayonara, auf Wiedersehen, to our family members, friends or acquaintances – usually with the taken-for-granted assumption that we will meet next time? Actually a German word Goodbye literally means until we see each other again. But what if we can’t or don’t want this person anymore? Do we always part harmoniously? If you knew you would never see a loved one again, how would you say goodbye?
These questions might inspire a sociology lesson on how people end relationships. We can ask and think about the ways people end relationships, stop interacting with someone, or leave a social occasion; how the relationship termination model helps us understand the nature of people and their relationships across age, gender, culture, ethnicity, or hierarchy; whether and why we can say goodbye to a person, but when, if ever, we say goodbye to an animal, or perhaps more likely a thing.
How do people say goodbye non-verbally? How long does it take for people to leave a conversation or opportunity and finally say goodbye? What are the social cues that tell us when to say goodbye? In other words, when is the right time and the wrong time to say goodbye?
The modern form of breaking up or ending a relationship is ghosting. Ghosting can mean leaving a social gathering or person, or leaving without warning or goodbye. The term can also refer to a sudden stop and termination after initial contact. As a ghost, a person sort of disappears – metaphorically speaking.
Sociology can not only help us understand the social consequences of saying goodbye, but also why someone would choose not to. Erving Goffman explained why people may or may not want to experience holidays by referring to communication rituals. Both greetings and farewells, as Goffman argued, “are ritualistic displays that mark a change in degree of access” (p. 79). He continues, “When farewell occurs, departure is likely,” and access or contact with a person is temporarily or permanently terminated (p. 85).
In other words, farewell behavior and saying goodbye can help mark the end of a conversation, relationship, or occasion. However, closing greetings in vain, in the wrong situation or at the wrong time can disrupt the social order so much as to disrupt communication. “Delightful
anomie’ and can happen, for example, when someone unexpectedly returns after saying goodbye and leaving the room (p. 88).
Both saying goodbye and orderly participation in the relationship game can also be seen as practices that Lynn Jamieson has called “doing intimacy.” While “Goodbye,” perhaps along with “Have a nice day,” “Best wishes,” or “See you later,” breaks people’s connection and leaves them to go their separate ways, it can also foster a sense of closeness. . Thinking about goodbye rituals as practices of intimacy also allows us to look at the emotional effort sometimes required to say goodbye and how those expressed or repressed feelings work and are affected by the strength/weakness of the relationship.
The absence of a farewell ritual when communication is abruptly terminated, as occurs in ghosting, can be seen as a strategy to avoid direct confrontation, emotional costs, intimacy, or incidents that damage the farewell ritual. Such strategies are explored in Carol Smart’s accounts of secrecy, Ashley Barnwell’s investigation of dishonesty, and Susie Scott’s account of deception. For example, Scott discussed the beneficial consequences we can achieve by purposefully concealing the truth, as such deceptive behavior would “cover up the cracks in strained relationships and contribute to the smooth organization of everyday life” (p. 275). Like keeping things secret, ghosting can also mask potential disruption of interactional order. Hence, wishing someone goodbye can be seen as a practice of establishing close bonds, just like ending a relationship with someone (or not?) by withdrawing from all communication.
Whether we say goodbye or not, goodbye behavior is more than just observing social interaction. It includes complex human relationships, norms, values, social relations and the ways in which these interdependencies are created and reproduced, as well as understood and interpreted in everyday social life. With that said, “I never got a chance to say goodbye” might take on a whole new meaning. So if you choose (not) to say goodbye, how do you know when and what leave strategy is the socially optimal choice?
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