Just say "hello"

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, January 2012

Confessions from an introvert enroute to a more social 2012.

I had a good friend in high school who could connect with anyone. She had kind eyes, a beautiful smile and, as she would say about herself, the gift of the gab. She could speak about anything—within reason of course, this being high school—and unfailingly sprinkled her stories with the kind of self-deprecating humour that solicits the endearment of others. She cared about people and was comfortable socializing outside of her age and peer group.

I envied her. I was, by nature, more of a sourpuss—well, not really, but I probably came across that way. I was shy and awkward and burdened with the curse of the blush. Even worse, my face would involuntarily pinch into a frown whenever I concentrated, a social impediment I wasn’t even aware of until years later when my young children would interrupt my reading or writing with an alarmed, “Why are you angry, Mommy?”

Given these quirks of personality, you’re probably not surprised to learn that I never really became adept in the social art of reaching out. For many years it felt awkward to say hello in passing to people I barely knew, and the timing always seemed off. An acquaintance spotted at my local Thrifty’s was apt to send me scooting my cart over to the next aisle because, you see, my hair was a mess and my jeans were ratty since I was dashing in just long enough to pick up milk and bread. Well, it wasn’t that bad but I must confess to once or twice digging deep amongst the frozen foods just to avoid a casual chat for which I had no energy on that particular day.

My kids are teaching me to be better. Even as youngsters they were charming and gregarious. They could spot an acquaintance from a mile away and would insist we go to say hello. Even now they seem to know everyone in their age group and many of my generation as well. (This I credit to public speaking learned in school, a stint of scutwork in the retail industry and maybe a gene or two from their father.) I’m both proud and envious of them, and over the years they’ve bolstered my own resolve to do a better job of “connecting” in my community.

Social aptitude is not a trivial skill and it can be learned, according to Howard White, an ordinary man who worked his way up to a vice-presidency with the Nike Corporation. In his essay, “The Power of Hello,” he relates how and why he developed the habit of always greeting any and all co-workers with a warm hello and genuine interest. “It’s not just something I believe in; it’s become a way of life,” he wrote. “I believe that every single person deserves to be acknowledged, however small or simple the greeting.”

White learned the lesson early from his mother and has let it guide him through life. “I speak to everyone I see, no matter where I am,” he writes. “I’ve learned that speaking to people creates a pathway into their world, and it lets them come into mine, too.” In some ways that might sound like New Age fluff, but consider the alternative—to walk past people with your head held down and eyes to the ground so that the day is just one long protracted tunnel of isolation, a social ailment that burdens legions of us despite our texts and tweets and fingertip access to everything going on in the world.

I’ll never be a gregarious person, and because social isolation is a particular hazard in my line of work, I have to guard against becoming a loner—even more so because I find reclusion appealing at a certain level. To be outgoing is hard work for me but it’s also enriching and almost always well received. I’m learning to ask about families and children and to remember the particular threads of connection from one chance meeting to the next. (Remembering, now there’s another challenge…) I’m trying not to daydream while trudging up a Cordova Bay hill in the morning so as to better appreciate the people I meet along the way.

For me the territory and its bumps are as old as childhood and as new as yesterday but I’m resolved to continue making progress. It’ll help to call my old friend for a few updated tips, and to avoid wearing my concentrating face in public. It also helps to know that 2012 looks to be an especially good year for self-improvement.

 

Despite her good intentions Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic doesn’t expect to become an extrovert overnight or anytime soon.