It happened sometime between my second martini and the sudden appearance of a new dinner guest at Balboa Cafÿ in San Francisco. Preston Death, the unsuspecting boyfriend of my friend Chrissy, leaned over to say hello, and I froze. Do I extend a hand? Go for a hug? Lean in for the single cheek kiss? The choices were endless. I vaguely recalled that prior to HBS I typically kissed during a hello. But that memory indeed added infinite choices: the single cheek, the double cheek, the air kiss. Which one was my signature hello? As one might imagine during the split-second hello process, I didn’t have time to execute accordingly. As Preston leaned closer and closer, I stumbled. His hello consisted of wet lips landing squarely on my cheek. Needless to say, it wasn’t the hello I was looking for.
Reading this you might have a couple of questions. First, do I really have a friend named Preston Death? The answer is yes, and you would incorporate his name into your story as well if it also had a sufficient tragic ending such as mine. Second, was it the martini that caused this lapse in hello manners? Again, I would automatically reply yes, except that I haven’t been comfortable with my hello since the incident occurred this summer. I had a date with Death (plutonic I assure you), and I lost my hello.
The hello is so important; I’m sad I lost the ability to excel at it. You see, hello is not just a word, but a non-verbal activity we practice everyday. We use the hello to introduce ourselves to people, “Hi, it is nice to meet you,” as your hand darts out quickly to shake another. The hello allows us to express joy at seeing loved ones, “HI, HI, HI!!!!,” as you run with arms wide open to receive them. We use the hello to begin conversations: “Hi there, my name’s Jason,” as you lean against the bar while offering a drink in one hand. Hellos can also be used to feign conversation in quick pass-bys, “Oh hey, so good to see you, I’m running late… I’ll see you around,” as your pace quickens to lend some truth to your story. And often, they are used as an excuse to leave a current conversation, “It’s been great talking to you. Please excuse me, I must go say hello to so-and-so.”
I decided to ask some friends about their hellos, to get to the bottom of this hello phenomenon. Didn’t “You had me at hello” mean anything to people? Surely it made Renee Zellweger’s career! (Saying that, perhaps she should have insisted on more than just a hello before marrying Kenny Chesney).
At first my friends returned blank stares. It seems they had not noticed the loss I felt so keenly. But as we discussed it more, they too realized they had experienced some discomfort with their own hellos. One mentioned the difficulty of saying hello while walking up the Aldrich stairs to all the people walking down the stairs at the same time. Another talked about the bar versus the classroom hello: is a kiss always appropriate? Is not choosing to kiss perceived as a rejection? To say nothing of how to say hello to professors, how to say hello while also on a cell phone or how to say hello to that person whose name you should know but you just can’t remember without that helpful name card in front of them. I realized hello is something we all struggle with, and suddenly I felt better.
Please do not be hesitant to say hello to me based on the confession I have put forth. You see, lately I have been stealing hellos. There are so many good ones, that when I see one I particularly like, I don’t understand the harm in trying it out. A couple of them work, others are not necessarily me. Close friends and relatives can spot the fakes straight-away, so the experimentation phase is getting a little weird. (Especially when you give a hello back to someone you “borrowed” it from).
Recruiting season is just around the corner, so I’ve toned down the hellos to simple manners (smile, extend hand, shake, say “hello”). I think that it will get me through November until I can get back to the scene of my original loss. After all, I need to mourn my hello, and find another that can take its place.