Greeting With a Smile

I grew up in Atlanta, GA, in a community in which Southern hospitality was a strong value.  Drivers stopped at stop signs and graciously waved other drivers through intersections.  Strangers on elevators or in lines at the supermarket were expected to make polite, mostly meaningless conversation.  Doors were held open without fail.  Significant emphasis was placed on polite communication — for example, I remember a unit taught in my kindergarten on proper telephone etiquette.

Answering party: “Hello?”

Caller:  “Hello, this is Dan Finkel speaking, may I please speak with [insert first and last name here]?”

Answering party: “Just one moment please, let me see if she is available.”

Caller: “Thank you.”

It was not until I left home after high school, first to Israel and then to college in the Northeast, that I began to understand that my norms and expectations for etiquette and hospitality were far from universal.  In Israel I learned that if I tried to just wait in line at the post office I would literally never get a turn – I had to claim my territory and push forward to get seen.  At college I learned that if you look people in Northeastern cities in the eye as you walk by, they might think you are crazy or someone they’ve met before and don’t recall.  When a friend from Boston visited me in Atlanta during a college vacation, he was dumbfounded by how welcoming and nice everyone was, and had no idea how to respond.  I don’t think that Southern culture is better or worse than Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, or New England culture – they are different though.

For parents and teachers, our own values and practices also set a culture in our homes and classrooms, and it is a culture that children absorb, react to, and adapt to in ways that have profound impacts on their identity.  Setting that culture intentionally is a key responsibility for adults in regular contact with children, and at Gesher we take it quite seriously.  In a recent study, researchers found that greeting students individually and positively at the door reduced misbehavior and increased academic engagement by as much as 20%.  This move, along with many others found in Responsive Classroom, helps teachers invest small amounts of time up front in order to set a tone that allows more learning to take place for the rest of the class.  In a larger sense, teacher’s who spend time at the beginning of the year establishing a positive, supportive culture also see the initial investment pay off in reduced time wasted on classroom management for the rest of year.  Less management means more time engaged in learning!

As I argue often, this wisdom has been present in Jewish tradition for millennia.  In this quote from Mishnah Pirkei Avot 1:15, the famous Rabbi Shammai teaches us the value of routine, active vs. frontal communication, and greeting others with positivity:

:שמאי אומר, עשה תורתך קבע. אמר מעט ועשה הרבה, והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.”

Imagine a world in which this advice was truly enacted by a majority of individuals most of the time!  Well, that world is being intentionally designed by the educators at Gesher every day, and our alumni demonstrate the powerful impact that growing up in such an environment can have on the ability to lead ethically and improve the world.  This Shabbat, I encourage you to think about small investments you could make in your own home or workplace (like positive greetings or regular routines that connect people) that might yield huge returns in the healthy culture we each hope to create for our children.  Ask your children what they think, too!

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sukkot Sameach,