You say goodbye, I say hello

Roxanne Sadovsky

I frustrate easily at the tedious small talk – no less its felicitous brackets – that is taking over the thing we call conversation. Everyone I know feels the need to say goodbye. Waiters say, “Bye now” on average three times per table. And did something go on between me and the team clerks at the Gap that I need to depart with a cheer?

Of course, this time of year we end up at large social events with relatives, and it gets really bad. When we finally finish saying our hellos, it is time to begin saying goodbye. This holiday rerun, as we know, takes forever. The obligation to greet each and every person leads to an endless do-si-do among schools of family, in-laws and strays. When did a social gathering evolve into a receiving line?

Recently, I was at an event with my grandma when she asked to borrow my cell phone.

“What for?” I snapped, looking at the crowded room. “Who isn’t here?”

She silenced me with her hand, pressing her cheek into the phone. “Hello, Irv? Can you hear me?” Gram doesn’t trust cell phones; she thinks they don’t work because they’re small. “It’s Sylvia,” she yells. “I was just calling because when you left, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”

Exactly what are the rules to this tradition, and why is it we feel badly when we don’t say hello or goodbye to someone? “He didn’t say hi to me,” I will often moan to a girlfriend at a social mixer. “He hates me.”

“No,” she’ll say, reminding me I saw him in the hallway on the way inside, “it’s time to move on to ‘How was your day?’ “

“But the hallway doesn’t count,” I’ll clarify, before moving on to the next subject. “Hey. There’s that guy from Dunn. What’s his name again?”

This absurd social banter is as useless as the cliches that support it. Let’s face it. “Hi, stranger!” is a euphemism for “Why the hell don’t you return my calls or emails?” as is “Long time no see” is for “Not you again.” Worse yet is “Say hi to so and so,” which assumes we should take up the slack for someone’s lack of commitment to a mutual friend. “Alrighty. I’ll get this one. You get Mike, though!”

On the other extreme, there are times when we feel the need to salute people we don’t even know. Not only does my mom make it a habit to call immediately before someone shows up at my door, but she lingers on the line until I let him into the apartment and get him a glass of something before returning to the line to tell her I have to go.

“Is he there?” she’ll ask.

“No, Ma, I just answer the door every now and then for the heck of it. I gotta go!”

“Okay,” she’ll cave, “say hi.”

There is something to this small talk. We can’t very well answer the phone with dead air. Nor can we ignore the wonderful folks who wish us well after the long flight with a ballad. I have nothing against this formal exchange. I dig romantic goodbyes at the train station. I like to wave.

These mini-conversations can be methods to avoid intimacy, and – conversely – gateways to more meaningful discussions. Stripped of its interpretation, salutations pack a tone that sums up the day’s events and emotions. While it might not be easy to ask for a shoulder to cry on, it’s pretty easy to decipher what a pathetic hello means. Same thing of an earnest goodbye cross-dressed with a question mark. I don’t know about you, but when I ask someone goodbye, I am usually haggling for a little affection.

No matter if you say aloha and I say shalom. No matter if you say goodbye and I say hello. It’s the stuff in between that determines how these linguistic slippers will fit our lives and support our journey. We know this every time we struggle to hang up the phone or embrace our loved ones at the airport. Conversely, we know this when we really want to get out of Dodge – when we are tired, cold, frustrated or needing to end a toxic relationship. Yet in the meantime, we wait around; we spend time drinking coffee in the ‘burbs and waiting for it to taste just right before we let it go.

So, bye.

Roxanne Sadovsky’s biweekly column appears alternate Thursdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]