Why No Friendly Greetings In Our Parking Lots?

Question:

I received the below question from an employee that I found interesting, mainly because I’ve experienced it too. Any suggestions on how to respond? The question: I’ve noticed something strange at the place I work. Not very often do people just say hi. I noticed it before, but didn’t think too much of it until the other day. I work in another building with 5 other people. Our admininstation office is accross the parking lot. I notice when I leave or go to lunch and other employees from admin. are leaving most of them don’t make eye contact or say goodbye or goodnight. If I say something they will respond back, but don’t seem to make the move first. I don’t think I’m intimidating, although they don’t see me daily as they do their co-workers. I hate to say it is a race thing except for the fact that I am only one of approximately 20 whites that work at a company that is 76% hispanic and 78% female.

My looks have come into play and I dress fashionably (no short skirts or cleavage for me). Is this an etiquette situation or do you think people get the wrong first impression? I consider myself very down to earth and friendly.

Signed,

Friendly and Frustrated


Answer:

Dear Friendly and Frustrated:

I doubt the situation the person who wrote to you is describing is personal and about her. I think it just involves the dynamics of working with people.

People vary in their decisions about who they interact with, how often they interact, and how engaged they become. That is true when dealing with complete strangers in stores or parking lots, but it is especially true in work situations where the same people are often encountered over and over.

Extroverted people who are energized by interacting with others are more likely to say hello to total strangers, and certainly will tend to say hello to coworkers, no matter how little they know them.

Introverted people, or less extroverted people, may not see a reason for people who don’t know each other well to intrude into each other’s privacy–and they see their world as a more private world.

So, part of what the person who wrote to you might be seeing is simply the demonstration of that fact: Everyone has a different style and way of interacting, and most of the time it has nothing at all to do with others, it has to do with them.

Even those of us who greet people all the time probably are doing it more for us than for the other person! There is also another reality in a work area where people are back and forth and around the buildings all the time: How many times do you really need or want to say hello, and can you sometimes just pass in the hallway or in the parking lot without talking at all?

Someone in a class told me her entire office building had an informal agreement: They never feel an obligation to say hello to anyone, anytime, unless they really need to talk to them. She said they have the quietest hallways around, even though there are often many people in them. I thought that sounded terrible, but many others in the class said that would be great. They said they got to where they dreaded seeing someone because they felt stupid saying hello in passing, when they knew they’d be passing again in a few moments. Put that way, I could understand it.

It is also true that at work, or coming to work and going home from work, people are often mentally busy with a problem. They are focused on that and don’t want to be distracted. Sometimes they literally do not see anyone else because they are so involved with their own thoughts.

As for parking lots, I was picking up a friend at her office building and noticed how few people said goodnight to each other as they were leaving. They just headed to their cars. A few, on the other hand, were laughing, talking, waving and generally being very friendly to everyone they saw as they left. I thought how much nicer that was than the somber stomping to the cars that others were doing.

My friend walked out and one of the friendly people said, “Hi! How are you?” Lisa said she was fine, then she got in my car as the woman waved goodbye and said, “Watch those roads, they’re icy!”

Just as I started to say how nice it was that some people were friendly like that, Lisa said, with a laugh, “Good grief! I barely even know her, but she’s one of those who is always doing the bubbly thing and wanting to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Have a great day’ and ‘Howyadoin?’ and ‘Is it hot enough for you?’ and all of that stuff. By this time of the day I just want to leave!”

Lisa is not a mean person at all. In fact, she is a giving, caring, nurturing person. But she didn’t see a reason to greet people who weren’t friends. I chided her about that a bit, then she reminded me that her building has several hundred people in it and by evening she is, as I sometimes describe it, “worn out from reaching out.” She also admitted that she was snippier about it than she should have been, and promised me she’d make up for it the next day–and she did! All of those issues may be involved for the person who wrote to you, and for others who feel the same way. Perhaps no one is being unfriendly, they are simply not being overtly friendly. And, they aren’t being hostile and refusing to speak when spoken to, they just aren’t making small talk unless forced into it.

I don’t see much value in enforced socializing as a way for people to get to know each other. Lisa’s office building has many such events, but that doesn’t create closeness when it’s all over. It seems the only way to have an outgoing group is to have outgoing individuals–and that may not be possible, given differences between us.

I think those of us who want to say hello should just do so, without any expectation. However, here are some things I have noticed or have done, that might increase friendliness among people who don’t know each other well:

1. I have sometimes speeded up a bit or slowed down a bit to walk with someone so I could introduce myself very briefly. That has nearly always resulted in at least a greeting smile the next time I saw them. When I was younger I limited that to females to avoid looking like I was hitting on men. Now I can talk to men too! Sometimes I would ask if I could help with a package, or I’d make a bland small-talk comment. (But NOT, “Is it hot enough for you?”!)

2. Now and then–not often–I would briefly stop someone and say, “I see you all the time but don’t really know where you work or who you are. I’m Tina Rowe and I work…….” That was often the beginning of a willingness to say hello the next time they saw me. I never imposed more than that brief greeting, because I didn’t want to make a lasting friend, I just wanted to say hello without feeling awkward.

3. Usually I found it easier to not speak at all and I found that was much better accepted by most people. I would make eye contact briefly, smile quickly and raise a hand slightly in a greeting, palm up and hand out slightly. That seemed to be enough contact for both of us! Sometimes we’d both grunt in a friendly way.

4. I noticed that even I was put-off by a few people who greeted me too heartily or loudly, or seemed to want to make the greeting turn into a conversation. One woman would always say hello and start talking. I only wanted to say hello. (Differences in people again!).

5. I had my close friends at work, a few nodding acquaintances with whom I could occasionally chat, many people I knew by face but not by name and we’d usually smile and say hi, and many, many people I didn’t know at all and who I said hello to because that’s just what I do. But, I came to accept that probably only the first three groups would respond to me, and I didn’t feel badly about the others.

That’s a long answer to your question, but at least it is another perspective. And if I ever see you and don’t say hi, remind me of this!

A second opinion: Sometimes you get more than one perspective from the workplace doctors. The additional answer below is now included before I have read Tina Rowe’s. I know it will not be more thorough and better than mine, but since I prepared these thoughts, I also want to share them with you.

Dear No Hi Five: Greeting one another while passing is normal for some individuals of different status, friendship/acquaintances, and cultures and personalities. The explanations you ponder for the failure of other employees to initiate a “Hi” or “Hello” are possible; however, although the why of behavior is of interest, might the more important consideration for you be: What can I do and we do to help our workplace be a friendly supportive place to work? Your question implies that your workplace isn’t as happy as it might be and that there is little if any excitement about what you are doing?

To have a short greeting is about all you can do when meeting someone, so continue to initiate a greeting. But if you want some of those you do not know to see you as a valued member of your workplace, you might include several proactive individual and collective initiatives, some that you already may express. Individually, you take time to get to know those in another building by initiating a conversation with one or two of those you do not know. You could avoid the subject of “averted eye” by simply finding a time and place to talk with a stranger with such safe topics as: “How long have you worked here?” What did you do before you worked here? “How long do you expect this bad weather to last?” “That’s a beautiful scarf. I like the way you tie it in your hair?” Or you might approach the topic directly expressing your feeling to a couple of individuals in another building, “Am I wrong in feeling that some of the people we work with don’t seem to know each other and pass by without a smile?” Or “The people in my building feel isolated and I for one would like to get to know some of you across the street. Do you think we exist?” Or rather than approach this matter as one individual, might you make it a topic on your workgroup’s agenda? Here you might propose the topics of productivity and quality. For example: How might we see other workgroups as internal customers? Do we have arthritis—we don’t seem to connect with each other and work as a big team? Or what might we do to make other work groups’ jobs easier and more effective?

Yet another collective approach is a values-up effort. I interviewed one large company that solicited each workgroup to create a list of values they wanted for their workplace. Separate workgroups then met with other workgroups to see if they might formulate joint statements and discuss how these values might be made more real. In another company in which I consulted that was being sued for a six million dollar death accident, employees were selected as a jury in a mock trial. This was a way for those in the offices to learn how acts in production could cost their company big bucks.

My point is that employees do become friendlier in and between different workgroups and buildings when they converge on an overarching goal—such as competing as an organization for the Governor’s quality award or cutting waste or delighting customers or building a float for the Hall of Fame Parade, etc.

Your feelings are important and you need not steel yourself from others. An open hand is usually met by another open hand. So is an open heart. Please get back to us after a couple of weeks to let us know what you do to answer the kind of questions we pose in addition to yours asking for suggestions. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. Bill Gorden

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.