Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Positive Power of a Simple Greeting

Morrie Schwartz was a Sociology Professor at Brandeis University who was diagnosed with ALS in the 1990’s.  He did a host of interviews about life, dying and other fascinating topics.  Many were published in the book, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom.  I thought it quite applicable to use excerpts from one of Morrie’s “Tuesdays” interviews, i.e., “The Power of Saying Hello,” in my “Tuesdays in the Chapel” presentation.  The entire article can be found at torah.org, @1995-2007, Project Genesis, Inc.
Reading #1: Excerpt
The Power of Saying Hello
Truly noticing others is fundamental to their self-worth

" ...We all need recognition. We need to feel that we matter. This doesn't mean that we should be running for glory and honor, but every human being has a basic and natural desire to be acknowledged as significant.

And we can give some of this significance to others simply by greeting them properly. We may not put much thought into how and when we say hello to someone, and we should ponder it more deeply.
The first thing to realize, which we certainly don't always think about, is that when we greet people with a 'good morning', we are actually giving them a blessing. We are telling them that we hope they will have a good morning. This is why, if you ever meet a grumpy person who responds to your 'good morning,' with a line such as, 'Who said it was good?', the response, besides being rude, is actually inaccurate. We are not defining the morning by saying 'good morning' rather, we are offering a blessing that it should be a good morning.

All greetings are meant in this way. The classical 'shalom aleichem' means literally that 'peace should be upon you', an excellent blessing which we always need…

The explanation would appear to be that when we see a fellow human being, we are obliged to acknowledge his value and importance. ...But even in the greeting, you display your respect for the person even more when you offer him a blessing that he should succeed, that things should go well, that he should have a 'good morning.'

And the way in which we greet someone is also important. ...We are not supposed to give someone a quick hello; rather, we should give them eye contact, thought, and genuine loving attention. 
Morrie Schwartz did this:

"I came to love the way Morrie lit up when I entered the room. He did this for many people, I know, but it was his special talent to make each visitor feel that the smile was unique. . .And it didn't stop with the greeting. When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this—instead of a grumble from a waitress, or a bus driver, or a boss?

'I believe in fully present,' Morrie said. 'That means you should be with the person you're with. When I'm talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I'm not thinking of what's coming up this Friday….I am talking to you. I am thinking about you." (Pages 135-136)…"

 “You’re not from around here, are you?” or “Do I KNOW you?”  I have gotten such responses a lot during my almost 18 years in Massachusetts.  My friends warned me against moving to Massachusetts.  They said that people here have a reputation for being unfriendly and typically ignore each other.  I chuckled in disbelief and accepted the job at MIT anyway.  Much to my surprise and disappointment, my friends were right!  But not about everybody in Massachusetts, and certainly not about most of the residents being unfriendly.  Over time, I learned that I just needed to first find a way to get their attention to open the channels of communication. 
Even as recently as last month, I was walking down Mass. Ave. with my colleague, Kate.  We passed by a middle-aged gentleman walking in the opposite direction.  In my usual fashion, I looked him in the eyes as we approached him, smiled, and said: “Hi! How are you doing?”  I obviously shocked him because he continued to walk past us, then stopped in his tracks about 20 feet away, turned around and asked: “You’re not from around here, are you?”  Kate and I looked at each other and laughed as we exchanged a few friendly words with the man.  I asked him something like: “Why would you ask me something like that?”  He responded with something to the effect that: “People here do not greet each other; they typically act like they don’t even see you.”  We agreed that was a shame, said goodbye, and continued on our respective journeys.  I could see that my simple greeting brought a little bit of joy to this stranger’s day, as it did to mine, and likely to Kate’s as well. 
Although I get the question: “You’re not from around here, are you?” framed in a positive way a little more often these days, I am at a loss as to why this is so challenging for some people.  After all, I am only trying to acknowledge a fellow human being.  I believe that one never knows how a simple, warm greeting can impact another person’s day; or sometimes, their entire life!  I know that my day always gets a bit better when someone returns one of my greetings with a kind nod, a warm smile, or a pleasantly surprised look.  Their eyes light up.  It is a great feeling.  Better yet, I am elated when a stranger greets me first, which is not too often.  Not to worry, I shall continue to greet people in an effort to make “my” day, even if I don’t make “their” day with my simple greetings.
I have greeted strangers in and around MIT since I came here in 1998.  I am happy to report that many of those “strangers” are now valued colleagues and alumni whom I highly respect and whom I hope respect me.  People have taught me lessons as well.  For example, a wonderful student, who has long since graduated, raised my awareness (actually, my lack thereof), of the effect of my simple greetings on others.  One day I greeted her as I rushed past her in the hallway with my usual:  “Hi!  How are you doing?”  She responded by asking me why I never stopped to allow her to tell me how she was doing.  It never occurred to me that my choice of words might be interpreted as an invitation to stop and share what was going on in an individual’s life.  I learned a great lesson that day, i.e., people need not only recognition through greetings, they sometimes need a little companionship.  I try to never pass up such opportunities anymore.
In closing, simple, warm greetings can make people realize that they are not alone in this vast universe; that they can see beyond the tiny screens on their iPhones, hear beyond the sounds coming from their huge headsets, and hopefully notice that they are being and deserve to be acknowledged as members of our special community – namely the human race.  As Morrie Schwartz said:
 Reading #2: Excerpt
“...We can all be a little more sensitive to other people's needs—especially their need for recognition and companionship. This is how we help them realize their tremendous value as human beings."

Thank you.

Toni P. Robinson, Ombudsperson, Office of the President