When People Greeted Each Other with Courtesy and Purpose
We live in brutal times without transitions. Everything must be instant and rushed, leaving no time for reflection. Thus, relationships become mechanical and inhuman.
We need time to ponder, even if just for a minute, to get our bearings. This is why we develop small social conventions to aid our judgment and temper the brutality of instant expectations.
One example of these reflecting habits consists of greetings. Those small formulas that start conversations or written letters provide us with transitions so we might communicate more civilly and effectively.
How we need greetings today, and how society is impoverished without them!
By definition, a greeting is a written or spoken expression of welcome characterized by goodwill and courtesy and conveyed by word, gesture or ceremony.
Examples of greetings might consist of simply saying “good morning,” “good day,” or “good night.” They might be accompanied by questions or some small talk. Anything that breaks the ice in an encounter qualifies as a greeting.
However, greetings are not just idle words. They fulfill their function when filled with meaning. They help set the tone for any exchange. When addressing another, we should communicate our personality to the other.
There was a time when society was rich in the ways and frequency of greetings. These aids prepared the way for excellent conversation, social cohesion or even business relationships. If we lack these things today, we can lay some of the blame on the decay of this most important institution.
Characteristics of a Greeting
Many elements make up a proper personal greeting. The words are critical. However, even before uttering some courtesy, the physical features of an encounter can project a world of impressions that is part of the art of good conversation.
For example, a personal greeting always has facial expressions corresponding to the greeter’s words and mood. Thus, the meeting can be seen as joyful or sad, lively or reflective, even before a word is spoken.
The voice is a fantastic instrument that can convey a wide range of attitudes by its tone and volume. The voice that greets can thus communicate enthusiasm, sympathy and warmth. It can put at ease or call to action.
Finally, the body posture at the time of greeting tells much about the disposition of the person greeting. It might involve a bow, hug or handshake to indicate consideration or affection for another.
More important than the physical gestures are the psychological attitudes projected in a salutation. It is natural that there be protocols that help people express these attitudes better.
A proper greeting, for example, might acknowledge the qualities or office of the other by using the accepted titles and formulas of address.
A greeting can show respect for the other by communicating esteem and even reverence or respect, for example, when addressing a priest, teacher or soldier.
Finally, a greeting by word and gesture can show affection for the person, especially when reflecting a close family relationship like that of a parent, spouse or child.
All these aspects of the greeting enrich communication and strengthen ties between people. All the social protocols attached to these greetings serve as guidelines to send unmistakable messages of esteem, consideration and affection. The richer the culture, the more diverse are the greetings. The more honor conveyed, the more beautiful are the formulas in use.
The Practical Aspects of the Greeting
Greetings are immensely practical social conventions. They serve a purpose beyond mere feelings and form. They become instruments for communicating well by establishing a firm foundation for conversations.
The art of greeting often consists of recognizing with personal titles. When using Mr., Mrs., Miss, Dr., Father or General when greeting, it immediately establishes who the other is. It further becomes an instrument for conveying honor upon the person or office. One greets a bishop with greater respect, for example, than a priest.
All this is done instantly and elegantly by using words and gestures that help the person do things right without embarrassment.
The Greeting as a Way of Practicing Humility
This ability to confer honor upon people leads so many to dismiss the greeting as an exercise in pretentiousness. Such souls abhor distinctions and think showing consideration for others is useless, impractical and even prideful. They claim it is humbler to receive others with few formalities or even no greetings whatsoever.
However, the contrary is true. As incredible as it might seem, the foundation of the greeting is the virtue of humility. It is far from pretentious. The proper greeting establishes a foundation for genuine and affectionate ties that have nothing of pride.
Saint Theresa of Avila said that “humility is truth. It is becoming aware of and accepting the truth of who we are.”
The proper greeting allows us to treat others as they truly are, not who they pretend to be. It allows us to observe this truth in society and rejoice in their being who they are while perfectly happy being who we are.
An Anti-Egalitarian Gesture Celebrating Differences
Thus, the greeting is anti-egalitarian. It establishes hierarchy, differences and distinctions. There is nothing wrong with doing this because it reflects a reality of inequalities that must be acknowledged and celebrated inside the humility of accepting the truth of who we are. By living inside this truth, we find charity, stability and peace.
As a result, the greeting should subtly express the reality of relationships based on the truth of age, sex, culture, education, function, birth and family. The mutual recognition of these truths in a greeting leads to the joy of conviviality and hospitality.
Thus, a greeting is an act of humility by recognizing the truth. It is also a gesture of justice in which we give respect and honor due to others for who they are. For example, we treat a general with all due respect to the office. It would be as unjust to treat a private like a general as it would be to treat a general like a private—despite our respect and gratitude for the service of both.
The Greeting Establishes Identity and Definition
The proper greeting improves the quality of relationships by immediately establishing the person’s identity. Each person knows who the other is and the appropriate respect required. We feel secure without any desire to be pretentious or vulgar. Both know who they are, independent of the opinion of others.
Right from the beginning of the conversation, there is no doubting, maneuvering, posturing or signaling. The simple greeting says it all. The conversation can then progress with calm and security.
Thus, there is nothing more practical than a proper greeting that immediately defines situations and relationships and allows us to proceed securely with the business at hand.
A World that Hates Greetings
The postmodern world hates greetings because it hates definition. When we define things, we acknowledge duties and responsibilities. We are forced to strive to live up to the standards this recognition requires.
Thus, greetings are suppressed or reduced everywhere. People do not want to assume real identities and prefer the lazy fluidity of being whatever they want or imagine themselves to be at any given moment. There is no humility in this denial of truth but rather the pride of distorting it to conform to whims and fancies.
In this no-commitment social climate, people are tremendously insecure. They do not know their rights or position. They do not know or want to know who they are. Life, then, becomes a sequence of constant maneuvering, posturing and insecurity.
A World Without Greetings
As a result, we often dispense with greetings altogether. The personal greeting might be reduced to a grunt or brutal acknowledgment. People think life is made easier by abandoning the effort of pleasing and recognizing others. It becomes a brutal hell of uncertainty and selfishness instead.
For example, social media is increasingly a forum without greetings. It harshly intrudes upon our world and expects an immediate response.
The tweet has no particular regard for those who read it. The text message is a short interference demanding immediate attention, often with no greeting. The Facebook post is a manner of projecting the fluid self upon the world. All these means of communication can be aggressive in their approach without nuance, rhyme or reason.
In this world without proper greetings, it is no wonder people are so sad. For this reason, never skip a simple greeting. Greet others whenever possible.
The Sweetness of Life
All these courtesies of greeting seem insignificant. However, they create the sweetness of life. Christian civilization developed all sorts of greetings to express the transitions we need to communicate well.
Christian greetings incorporated religious references to express a joyful unity of faith, as in the German expression “grüß Gott!” (God bless!). In Gaelic, it was “Dia duit” (May God be with you). And the greeted person responded, “Dia is Muire duit” (May God and Mary be with you).
All these greetings constitute the fragrant perfume of a Christian civilization in which these things are valued.
This polite manner of greeting presupposes that we know who we are, independent of the opinion of others. It is only possible based on humility, being “aware of and accepting the truth of who we are.”
Then we might experience the joy of living in virtue, pleasing God and neighbor. We learn to savor those delightful transitions and times of leisure that allow us to reflect on the permanent things of this earth and anticipate life everlasting in Heaven.