My brief, infrequent and unnerving pilgrimages for groceries and other household necessities have led me to notice an interesting change in local small talk. Specifically, I have noticed a shift in the regionally-conventional greeting: ‘Hi, how are you?’.
For a number of years now, New England retail store cashiers have frequently greeted customers with a, ‘Hi how are you?’. In reply, the customer is meant to say, ‘I’m fine, thank you. How are you?’ This sounds like a nice-enough exchange of pleasantries until one realises that neither party really listens to or cares about the other’s answer. It’s conventionally normative for Person A and Person B say their halves of the exchange, and then both continue on with their days. On past occasions, mainly to see what would happen, I have attempted to highlight the hollowness the ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange by turning it into a mini breaching experiment of sorts: when a person greeted me with ‘Hi how are you?’, I would answer with an honest account of my day and state of mind. It was a relatively pointless exercise that mainly seemed to cause confusion. Sadly, calling attention to the emptiness of pleasantries is rarely enough to change them.
However, soon after Connecticut began observing state-wide stay-at-home rules, I began to notice a difference in the ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange. I first noticed a difference whilst at the checkout counter of my local grocery market. On this occasion, the cashier asked ‘How are you’ with a surprising tone of sincerity. In turn, I found myself responding with sincerity. On that occasion and frequently since then, the cashiers’ ‘Hi, how are you(s)?’ have seemed to convey genuine interest in my answer, and perhaps also some degree of gratitude that shoppers were wearing face masks, following store-mandated social distancing rules, and continuing to shop at their place of work; my reply of ‘I’m fine, thank you. How are you?’, likewise felt relatively honest. All things considered, I am indeed ‘fine’ because I’m not ill with a mysterious virus. I also realised I was genuinely concerned for the grocery market cashiers, and hoped none of them caught coronavirus or lost their jobs.
I have been wondering about how and in what ways the coronavirus pandemic might potentially foster unity, and perhaps the newly sincere ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange is a small affirming indication. On a grander scale, the coronavirus pandemic has presented the world’s people with a common problem and a common set of related concerns. On a local level, at least in my area of Connecticut where people are overwhelmingly sensible, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have encouraged people to act in terms of others’ safety more than they otherwise would have in the past. This could all be wishful thinking, but my hope is that some positive social norms will rise from the ashes of this frightening year.