March 24, 2021

Why are we so Afraid to say Hello to Each Other?

It’s not about the introvert/extrovert divide:

Cities are filled with dense populations.

From Tokyo, the leading city in the world, which boasts a populace of 37 million inhabitants, to Delhi, which follows not far behind with a whopping 30 million citizens covering the geographic space, the world is filled elbow-deep with humans.

In such large contexts, there are bound to be issues with human behavior. One major glaring discrepancy is the lack of connection to one another—even though, in some spaces, we are quite literally just inches apart from each other. From using the tube in London to the subways in New York, silence can be heard across the bus lines in major cities across the globe.

Hello has become taboo.

It’s as if a simple “hello” has become an intrusive taboo. The unilateral argument is that some people are introverts, and others are extroverts—which doesn’t take into account a host of other contributing factors from the field of anthropology, cultural theory, behavioral science, and neuroscience that give us a much better understanding of why we prefer spatial disconnection in such large contexts.

The first step in exploring this phenomenon is to understand that connection is an intrinsic part of who we are as a species. In the field of neuroscience, there is a brain-based phenomenon that occurs when we connect, hold hands, and build community—it’s referred to as brain synchrony—that is also the birthplace of empathy in the brain.

Simone Tsoory, a social neuroscientist from the University of Haifa, explains how empathy works in social contexts:

“Empathy, basically, is the ability to feel and understand other people’s emotions. There are both emotional aspects of empathy, where we share the same feelings as someone else, as well as cognitive aspects, which is our ability to take someone else’s perspective on a situation,” she says. “These kinds of empathetic interactions between people occur every day.”

Social connection resides beyond the binary of a faulty paradigm about who is introverted and who is extroverted. Research has shown that this oversimplified binary categorization of personality does not hold weight—because human personality is on a spectrum for us all.

We receive a cocktail of neurotransmitters when we are touched by someone we trust in a positive environment—like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Dopamine is the feeling we get when we are rewarded for certain behavior. Serotonin is a mood-based messenger, and oxytocin is deployed when we feel connected to someone we value. Some studies have even shown that connecting to fellow humans we trust can help us live longer and have a higher quality of life.

Linguistic strategy:

Saying “Hello!” to strangers is a linguistic strategy to identify who is a friend and who is a possible foe.

In anthropology, the practice of hosting strangers was a common acceptable—if not spiritualized, ritualistic—practice for many cultures. Some cultures would even create parties to specifically hold court for the stranger—as in the ancient Levant.

The stranger was not vilified like they are in the West today. We teach our children to fear strangers by normalizing phrases such as “stranger danger”—when other cultures developed whole philosophies around hospitality and reciprocity. Inviting a stranger into your home was an act of compassion and empathy.

The Greek culture practiced and moralized a ritual of inviting the stranger into their homes. It’s referred to as Xenia.

“Xenia consists of two basic rules:

    1. The respect from hosts to guests. Hosts must be hospitable to guests and provide them with a bath, food, drink, gifts, and safe escort to their next destination. It is considered rude to ask guests questions, or even to ask who they are before they have finished the meal provided to them.
    2. The respect from guests to hosts. Guests must be courteous to their hosts and not be a threat or burden. Guests are expected to provide stories and news from the outside world. Most importantly, guests are expected to reciprocate if their hosts ever call upon them in their homes.

Xenia was considered to be particularly important in ancient times when people thought that gods mingled among them. If one had poorly played host to a stranger, there was the risk of incurring the wrath of a god disguised as the stranger…”

The social practice of Xenia was about mutual respect and reciprocity. It had divine implications.

So, what has happened to a culture that fears the stranger, fears connection, and fears words? It is ultimately a cultural value-based assumption that anyone we do not know is not worthy of our trust or time.

Western tribalism:

It is tribalism that has proliferated in the West. From our favorite football teams to aggressive nationalism, tribes tend to prefer those they know and make the assertion that those outside their circles are not to be trusted. This is a short-form version of relational confirmation bias.

We assume that those who are standing right next to us on a public bus are somehow our enemies before we even say “Hello!” We make enemies long before we make the connection.

Although this is an evolutionary hangover of having a very old brain, it is to our detriment that we socially disregard one another. Tribalism is an act or particularity over the universalistic understanding of others.

“In his book, Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism, Paul James, a professor of Cultural Diversity from the University of Sydney mentions a certain actual use of the term tribalism to refer to closed particularistic movements. He cites, for example, Zygmunt Bauman, who employed the expression ‘new tribalism’ to indicate the contemporary development of emotional responses characterized by extreme xenophobic intolerance towards the different.

In the last half-century, tribalism has been considered negatively, as a symbol of backwardness (for example, in the frame of post-colonial North-African states) or, in the context of Arab nationalism, as a colonial legacy.” ~ Elena Vismara, “The contemporary nature of tribalism. Anthropological insights on the Libyan case.”

Proximity has an emotional component to it. If someone is standing in our spot or driving in our lane, we do everything to let them know.

However, standing in lines waiting for an event seems to also have the opposite effect—where many people will bump into others without realizing where they are standing in relation to others—as if to imply that others do not exist and are forgettable. This is indicative of a culture that is confused about what to do with hospitality and the stranger.

This all has to do with how we frame our understanding of human connection, tribalism, and social identity.

We need to bring back “Hello!” and normalize human connection—if not to just stare fear in the face and remind ourselves of the need to embrace hospitality, then for the selfish act of living longer.

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