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What Happened to 'Hello'? The Mental Health Implications

Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, is a nationally sought-out expert on issues relating to mental health and substance abuse.

Do you say hello to strangers on the street?

Do you say hello to strangers on the street?

Sidewalk Psychology

In a June 2012 article for Bloomberg, Tyler Falk described the “sidewalk psychology” that he regularly encountered on his favorite walk from his apartment through the Capitol Hill neighborhood to Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.. One day, he was surprised to be greeted by a stranger who said “hello” and asked him how he was doing. That inspired Falk to try an experiment. He wrote:

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.

Of the 24 people or groups Falk passed, only three acknowledged him. That spurred more research and exploration by Falk into his own desire to be reciprocated with some form of acknowledgment, even from strangers. He came upon a study in the journal Psychological Science, which argued that because social connection is vital to human survival, we are hard-wired to notice even the smallest signs of inclusion or exclusion. Something as small as a passing stranger’s eye contact—or lack thereof—can convey whether we belong; and a sense of belonging is an important component of mental health.

When Strangers Don't Greet Each Other, What Are the Mental Health Repercussions?

Americans have long held a reputation for being friendly. Greeting strangers is in our cultural DNA, yet Falk’s experience is also not uncommon. Many people voice similar experiences online. “Are Americans becoming less friendly?” is a common query and conversation thread in forums, for example.

The answer appears to be “yes.” Research from the General Social Survey found that Americans have become less social during the last 40 years and that one third of them don’t talk even with their neighbors.

Meanwhile, Americans have fewer friends and are lonelier than ever. That increase in social isolation can trigger substance abuse and other mental health issues—a trend that experts say was made worse by the pandemic.

The Mental Health Case for Saying “Hi” to Strangers

Whether it’s on a walk, in the elevator, or at the cash register or dog, park, studies have found that greeting strangers can boost your mood. A 2019 report by NPR summarized those findings, including the following experiment:

When a University of British Columbia psychologist decided to test how short conversations with strangers might affect mood, she assigned a group of test subjects to go into a busy Starbucks and buy a beverage. Half of them were instructed to go in and get out; the other half were instructed to strike up a conversation with the cashier. In the end, the test subjects who struck up a conversation with the cashier left Starbucks in a better mood and felt a greater sense of belonging to their community.

Just the exchange of friendly eye contact alone can lift mood and build a sense of community, researchers have found— so what’s getting in the way? Smartphones are a big part of the problem, researchers have said. Higher rates of stress and longer working hours may also be factors. (These and still other issues are associated with substance abuse and mental health problems.)

Take Part in the #WorldHelloDay Challenge

Saying “hi” to someone new can be more intimidating for those who aren’t extroverts or for those who have fears of talking with strangers. Consider taking part in “World Hello Day” (November 21). The only requirement for participation is saying 10 “hellos” that day. Consider taking a walk in the neighborhood like Falk and greeting whomever you meet. Or, when you’re out doing errands, be intentional about greeting the person behind the drug store counter, cash register, or at the gas pump.

World Hello Day began 50 years ago as an effort to preserve world peace through communication rather than force. This year World Hello Day comes at a time when Americans seem more divided than ever and mistrust of strangers may be, if anything, more pronounced. That makes the simple act of saying “hello” even more powerful, not just as a mood booster but as a moment for human connection and belonging that transcends differences.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.