Why You Should Say 'Hello' to Strangers on the Street

On sidewalk psychology. 

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Flickr/InspirationDC

One of my favorite walks in Washington, D.C., is from my basement apartment north of H Street NE through the Capitol Hill neighborhood to Eastern Market, the oldest continually operated fresh food public market in D.C. It's a 1.5 mile walk, but a peaceful one, through a mostly residential neighborhood with plenty of dog walkers and stroller pushers. 

Building facade of Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia Commons.

Its vibe makes me want to say "hello" to everyone I pass on the sidewalk or sitting on their front porch. Not everyone, however, feels the same way.

I started walking to Eastern Market on a sunny, humid early Sunday afternoon when, less than a block from my door, I passed by a boisterous man on the sidewalk and gave him a smile. He stopped his conversation, turned to me and said "hello, sir, how are you doing today?" That interaction was in sharp contrast with the remainder of my walk. Despite my effort to acknowledge the people I passed, not one met my eyes for a simple head nod or "hello." (We're not in Times Square, people!) I was disappointed.

On my way back I decided to count how many people would acknowledge me when I passed them on the sidewalk. I tried to make eye contact with anyone who passed me, along with anyone on their front lawn or porch. I gave an "acknowledgement point" to anyone who met my gaze, and tracked how many people made eye contact, said hello (even with no eye contact), or waved. Shoot, I would even count it if someone yelled at me for staring at them too much (that didn't happen).

All told, I passed 24 people or groups. Want to guess how many of them got acknowledgement points? . . . 3, or 12.5 percent. To put it another way, a higher percentage of American males have strokes than acknowledged me on the sidewalk last weekend. Bummer.

Townhouses in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo: xxo23o/Flickr.

I put the findings of my quasi-research project in the back of my mind until I happened to come across a study that might explain why I was so interested in people acknowledging me during my walk. It comes from a simple human need to feel included.

In the study "To Be Looked at as Though Air: Civil Attention Matters," published earlier this year in Psychological Science, the lead author Eric D. Wesselmann, a psychology professor at Purdue University, explains: "Because social connections are fundamental to survival, researchers argue that humans evolved systems to detect the slightest cues of inclusion or exclusion. For example, simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion. ... Even though one person looks in the general direction of another, no eye contact is made, and the latter feels invisible." Similar to my feelings when I went unnoticed.

To measure how people feel when they are acknowledged by others, the researchers had a college-aged woman walk around a well-trafficked college campus of about 40,000 students. The woman randomly chose 282 people and did one of three gestures: looked through them (without making eye contact), acknowledged them with eye contact, or acknowledged them with eye contact and a smile. After the passing, a colleague trailing behind the woman stopped the person she acknowledged (or didn't) and asked two questions: "Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?" (on a scale of 1-5) and "Within the last minute, have you experienced acknowledgment from a stranger?" (yes/no). This is all without the person knowing that the woman and her colleague are working together. The graph below from the study shows the results:

The people who were given an "air gaze" (or no eye contact) felt the most disconnected. On the other hand, the people who received eye contact and a smile felt the least disconnected of anyone studied. I wonder if you add a "hello" to the smile if it would lower the feeling of disconnection even more. Either way, it seems that even the smallest gestures to connect toward strangers can bring about a sense of community. And that's good for human health.   

As Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary established in a 1995 study humans have a "need to belong." As they explain: "Both psychological and physical health problems are more common among people who lack social attachments. Behavioral pathologies, ranging from eating disorders to suicide, are more common among people who are unattached." Much of his comes from the quality of long-term relationships, but I'm curious whether seeing people often in a city setting and not feeling connected could contribute to this as well.

But the role place plays in the feelings of disconnection is not clear. If the same study was conducted in Times Square, for example, would the results be different? The research isn't there yet, but Wesselmann offers a hypothesis.

"It is reasonable to assume that context may influence the effects of both acknowledgment and being given the “air-gaze” (looked at as if one doesn’t exist)," said Wesselmann. "If one is in a community where the social norm is to politely greet everyone, then these effects may be intensified. In large cities where these interactions are less common, the effects may be tempered."

Even within big cities there's surely some variation. How would the results of a similar study in Times Square differ from a residential street in New York?

Big cities have bustling corridors where saying "hello" would be out of place. But there are plenty of places, even within the most densely packed city, which lend themselves to neighborly acknowledgement: an apartment building, an office, a quieter residential street. Afterall, the feeling of connectedness is one of the benefits of living in a city. Let's make sure to utilize it. It's good for us.

Top image: InspirationDC/Flickr

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