I’m back from a week’s vacation at the beach in North Carolina. I got home with enough daylight to give me time for a run along the Charles River near my home. The run gave me a chance to recalibrate myself to the local culture. For a week I had been in a place where people consistently smile at, maintain eye contact with, and say hello to people they do not know. I was reminded this afternoon that this kind of behavior is greeted with surprise and suspicion in metropolitan Boston. By the end of my run I was able to be tight-lipped and evasive once again.
My wife, though born in Chicago, also grew up in North Carolina (she claims her Midwestern roots whenever she needs to disavow some embarrassing aspect of Southern culture). She has grown so tired of the sour and silent avoidance of eye contact that passes for greeting around here that she is considering launching a campaign called Just Say Hi. She wants me to design a t-shirt for her new cause. I pointed out that a woman walking around with a t-shirt that says Just Say Hi may invite somewhat more attention than desired.
Still, it does make you wonder how different cultures evolve. It also makes me wonder about the geographical distribution of friendly greetings. Is there a quantitative measure of stranger-friendliness that you could plot on a heat map of the US and see, perhaps, a sharp rise across the Mason-Dixon line? And where are the inflection points of friendliness as one moves from sullen New England westward to the cheerful and welcoming Midwest?