Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

The Power of Hello

The simplest way to make your world a better place.

It remains one of the most influential memories of my time as a college professor. I was in my office over the summer, reading through written comments from the back of my teaching evaluations (yes, we do read those). While this was a large class with close to 100 students, one set of remarks in particular made me stop and think.

The comment: Thank you for the way you taught this course. In the moments before each class started, you walked around and talked to us, chatting about the course, asking about our weekend or just joking around. And what I appreciated the most is that you did this with everyone in the room—not just the students you already knew, the ones who sat up front or those who looked like you do, but everyone. Thanks for that.

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I don't share this paraphrased student comment to toot my own horn. In the interest of equal time, I could just as easily show you those evaluations that have taken offense at things I've said, criticized my grading, or expressed more general dissatisfaction with my classroom performance. No, I share the comment above for a different reason: because, as I mentioned, it made a lasting impression.

I'll admit, though, that I had a mixed reaction upon reading it. On the one hand, I was encouraged that I had created a welcoming classroom climate, at least for this student. But I also found the comment sobering. And a bit sad. Because its implication was that this student did not feel the same way in every one of his or her classes. All it took to make a positive impression were my token gestures of smiling, saying hello and small talk—and doing so in equal measure with every student in the room. That this was enough to merit special mention struck me as damning through faint praise.

My university is a wonderful place. I genuinely believe that, and I think many faculty, students and staff on campus do as well. We do a lot of things exceptionally well, but that doesn't mean we can't do them even better. After all, in addition to being wonderful, my campus is also a place with extraordinarily high standards, and that means constantly striving to identify areas for self-improvement (a la faculty members reading through their teaching evaluations after each semester).

This week's effort at campus self-improvement is a "Say Hello" campaign launched by our new Office of Intercultural and Social Identities Programs. It's a simple idea, really: pick up a slogan button on Wednesday or Thursday at the dining halls or campus center, and remind yourself (and everyone else) to say hello to each other.

Don't confuse simple with unimportant, however. As I learned from my teaching evaluations that summer afternoon, saying hello makes a difference. There's surprising power to hello.

That's not just me (and student evaluations) talking—that's science. Behavioral research demonstrates that little things make a big difference when it comes to social interaction. Data indicate, for example, that smiling is contagious. That employees who smile more tend to have customers who are more satisfied. And even that holding a pen in your teeth so that the ends of your lips curl upward—forcing your mouth into a smile you aren't even aware of—leads you to find a joke funnier and just enjoy what you're doing a little bit more.

Saying hello has similar effects. Yet all too often, we don't do it. As we walk across campus, most of us have a lot going on— around us and in our minds. You're thinking about that impending due date or that text message you probably shouldn't have sent. You're listening to music through headphones or focusing all your mental energy on locating and avoiding patches of ice (during a normal winter, at least).

Behavioral researchers have studied this tendency, too, right down to giving it a catchy name: stimulus overload. The idea is that our environment constantly bombards us with information—with sights, sounds, smells and more. To accomplish daily goals and get where we're trying to go, we have to block out some of those stimuli. So we put on perceptual blinders to conserve mental energy, allowing us to focus on the task at hand.

But these blinders also leave us less aware of what's happening around us. You're less connected to other members of your community when you walk briskly across campus, head down, lost in thought, thumbing through your iPhone (a misdemeanor I'm as guilty of as anyone).

Whether or not we mean to, we send a message when we do this. While you know quite well that you're a friendly and welcoming person who's just temporarily busy, distracted or running late, passersby form less generous impressions. And, thus, a university full of personable and warm individuals inadvertently becomes less hospitable in the aggregate—particularly in the eyes of anyone who already had doubts regarding his or her own social/intellectual/political identity on campus.

So this week, make sure to say hello. Say it to the casual acquaintance, the former professor, the co-worker at lunch, and the woman who sits down in the row from you in lecture. In those few minutes before your class or meeting starts, don't use the time to fire off one last email; instead, make the minimal effort required to introduce yourself to the guy next to you.

One last research finding to share: what's the biggest obstacle to college students forming friendships across boundaries (be they departmental, demographic or other perceived differences)? It's not lack of interest; almost all students will tell you they wish they interacted more with people from a variety of walks of life. No, the big obstacle is the belief that others lack interest—that "people like that" aren't interested in getting to know "people like me." Saying hello is a simple way to start disproving those assumptions.

Happiness isn't a prerequisite for smiling; sometimes smiling is what makes you happier. By the same token, remind yourself to say hello and you actually contribute to a friendlier and more inclusive climate. As a former student once taught me (anonymously), sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference.

A version of this post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Tufts Daily newspaper.

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Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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