Don't Feel Weird About Saying 'Hi' to Strangers

people walking in the park
When everyone is in their own little world, simple greetings often go unacknowledged. Ryan DeBerardinis/Shutterstock
Woman walks by a park bench
Be prepared for some sideways glances. mendhak [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

My son teases me when we walk in the park. When we see people walking their dogs, I always say "Hello" ... to the dogs.

"Hi, buddy!" I say in a singsong voice, directing my attention to all the four-legged strangers we meet. Occasionally I'll also look up and smile at their human companions, but I'm mostly focused on greeting their pups.

If there are people who are dog-less, I still try to smile or say "Hey," but it's interesting how many people don't acknowledge the greeting. Many are talking on their phones, listening to music, staring straight ahead or caught up in conversations with their walking companions. Some look surprised or stare at me blankly and pass on by.

Tyler Falk, a writer in Washington, D.C., decided to do an unofficial study on this kind of sidewalk psychology for CityLab. On a 1.5-mile walk from a big food market back to his apartment on a Sunday afternoon, Falk said hello to 24 people or groups as he walked through mostly residential neighborhoods.

He gave what he called an "acknowledgement point" to any person who made eye contact, said hello or waved.

"Want to guess how many of them got acknowledgement points? . . . 3, or 12.5 percent," Falk writes. "To put it another way, a higher percentage of American males have strokes than acknowledged me on the sidewalk last weekend. Bummer."

Researchers have studied how people feel when they are (and aren't) acknowledged by other people. For a study published in the journal Psychological Science, a college-age woman walked around a large Midwestern university campus. She randomly selected 282 people and then performed one of three gestures: She looked right through them without making eye contact, made eye contact, or made eye contact and smiled.

After the woman passed, a second person stopped and asked two questions of the people the first woman had chosen, not letting on that she was a colleague of the first woman.

"Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?" and "Within the last minute, have you experienced acknowledgment from a stranger?" The people who were given no eye contact felt the most disconnected, while the people who received eye contact and a smile felt the least disconnected.

See what a difference a little greeting can make in someone's day?

Is it weird?

people walking in the park
When everyone is in their own little world, simple greetings often go unacknowledged. Ryan DeBerardinis/Shutterstock

On Reddit, a poster asked, "Is it weird to say hello to random people on street?" The Redditor was dealing with social anxiety and a counselor suggested that saying "Hi" to strangers would be a good way to help overcome it.

The overwhelming response — except for someone from the U.K. who said they are a suspicious bunch when people are friendly — was that it's great to greet people. They did point out that it's often more acceptable and expected depending on where you live. In the South, people are generally more hospitable and outgoing to those they don't know versus say, in New York City, where greetings would likely be ignored and not returned.

But in general, they say it's a super idea to greet random people with a smile or greeting.

Of course, you do have to stay within some socially accepted norms — like when someone is within a reasonable distance and not with great exuberance — a point made obvious in the funny video below.

"When I go for a walk in not so busy places, if eye contact is made I say hello to the person walking by," writes Joneh on the Reddit thread. "I mean it would be odd to say hello to everyone walking by in a busy street, but when it's not busy and you are just out there doing your own thing I think it's quite friendly so say hello. But don't take it personal if people don't say hello back, they could be some place else with their mind."

Redditor Cragb agrees, "I do it all the time when out walking or biking. I think of it as simply acknowledging another human being. Sometimes people don't reply of look at me strangely but it's no harm to me, I just keep moving."