Rules of Engagement

Extremism, in any form, is a little scary to me. I remember the guy who hung out in a Boston subway station passing out those annoying “Hello my name is” tags to encourage commuters to greet each other. I’ve seen internet videos and stories on the news about people offering free hugs in public. A few of the video clips were entertaining, but for the most part, such contrived campaigns really unnerve me.

One group had the gall to approach customers in bars asking if they wanted to cuddle; bizarre to say the least.

Overly perky and forward strangers are awkward to deal with. I’m with the camp that believes that personal space should be respected. Of course, we don’t live in plastic bubbles, and we do need to communicate, socialize and share space with other human beings. The problem is that many people aren’t very good at it.

I’ve lived in a condo building with 150 units for more than 6 years. I’m always very careful not to ask my neighbors how they are, what’s new, or anything that invites conversation.  Such overtures can be construed as too personal which is a big no-no, unless you’re from a friendly part of the world.  I greet everyone with a basic Hi, Hello, Good morning, or Good evening, as a simple, neighborly acknowledgement. Most people reciprocate, but there’s still a small minority who will say nothing, absolutely nothing.

How does it happen that humans who live in the same building recognize a neighbor who greets them and not respond at all?  I realize that everyone has a bad day occasionally, and some people are fighting personal battles that we aren’t aware of. However, it’s just common courtesy to say hello, and it’s really strange not to acknowledge another human being in a safe setting, especially a neighbor. I’m getting closer and closer to responding to the non-responders with; Do you know I live here? Did you know I was your neighbor? , Anglais?, Non comprende?  Did you hear me?, Maybe I’ll use the approach that Robin Williams did in the movie, Patch Adams. When his Hi to a female student he had a crush on was followed by silence, Williams offered, “You’ve just experienced a North American greeting…as an expression of welcome and friendship.”

I’ve discussed this topic often with Tommy, a concierge where I live. Tommy told me about people who responded in a way that demonstrates that they weren’t even listening to him. For example, he’ll say, Good evening sir. Is it still raining? and they’ll reply with a robotic, Good, thanks.  A lot of people don’t care about making human connections until they need or want something.

There’s pizza shop a few blocks away from where I live called Harry O’s, owned by Vaggelles and his wife Katerina, who originally hail from just outside of Athens, Greece. The owners are very friendly, hard-working people who make a concerted effort to welcome everyone who enters their shop. When Cathedral High School lets out from across the street, Harry O’s fills up with students who bring a day’s worth of pent up energy, shall we say. There have been many days when Vaggelles and I have caught eyes and bonded, as if to utter the proverbial, Kids today.  I always joke with him that instead of the old signs that used to read, No shirt, No shoes, No service, he should get a sign that reads, No manners, No Service. Of course, if he followed that rule he’d go broke. One day I was enjoying a slice of pizza in a booth when the bell on the door rang as a gentleman walked in. As the customer approached the counter, Vaggelles belted out his customary, How are you today, my friend? The customer replied, Meatball sub, not even realizing or caring that he didn’t reciprocate the greeting. Meatball sub is not an appropriate response to a warm greeting…

I became a lot more aware of the ‘no greeting  phenomenon’ after I decided to write this book. One day I called my bank to order more checks. After working my way through the endless prompts, I finally got to a live human; Good morning, my name is Erick, may I have your name please? was the greeting. My reply was, Hey Erick, my name is Patrick. How are you today? At that point in the conversation, curiosity got the best of me. I politely interrupted Erick’s script and asked him how many people make some kind of human connection before blurting out what they need. When he told me 5%,  I explained that I was floored that only 5% of the people who call in say hello, break the ice, or check in with him   Yes sir, most people just want their checks, was his response. I know, I know, everyone’s busier these days, but are we really too busy to say hello? It would be very interesting to listen to the recordings of all of the customer service calls and conversations when a recording says, Your call may be monitored or recorded for quality, training and coaching purposes.  Maybe we should use those recordings to train and coach customers.  I’d love to hear, Your call will be recorded to ensure customer civility and respect for our associates.

You can learn a lot by saying hello, asking how things are, listening, and taking the temperature before asking for what you want.  By doing that, you’ll be better prepared to make the rest of the interaction successful. For example, if a server responds to your greeting by telling you that they’re new or that they’re short-handed and asks you to bear with them, then hopefully you’ll be patient and work with them to relax and have fun. It’s not that hard.

Here’s a sample of the responses I received when I asked my survey participants about the worst thing they’ve been called by customers trying to get their attention;

  • Hey you!
  • Sonny
  • Mamma
  • Kid
  • Chief
  • Boy
  • Captain
  • Big guy
  • Chink
  • Hey, barmaid
  • Sweet cheeks
  • Champ
  • Hell–LOOO
  • “I don’t like the dog whistle when people are trying to get my attention.”
  • “What bothers me is the finger snapping. What the hell is that? It’s as if I am a dog being ‘called’ by its owner.”