“Hello there.” My stepfather would say hello to us whenever he entered the room, invariably. I quickly learned–by rote–that a response was expected. It didn’t seem so outrageous, of course. In fact it seemed a friendly enough thing to do, so I tried it myself for a while. “Hello, Mom. People? Hello. Hello, all.” It didn’t take though.
One might think that the socially ungainly youth would take great solace in such ritualized behavior, insofar as it renders the vulgar act of thinking unnecessary. But to the skeptic there are situational subtleties that social doctrine is insufficient to address, so in fact the act of greeting proved to be a lot of work for me. As I grew ever more self-conscious about these automatic, Tourette’s-like utterances–“good morning,” “bless you,” “oopsie daisies”–it occurred to me that there there were an overwhelming array of hidden factors to be aware of. Had you already said hello to someone two minutes before? Had you forgotten something in another room and merely gotten up to retrieve it, and then returned? What if you had to suddenly go to another room, and a detachment from the original room took another route to get to the same destination for another reason? Did you have to pretend? “Oh! Hello there! Ha ha. Fancy meeting you here, when, just in the other room, you were there, too…”
No, I soon discovered that the mental gymnastics required to justify this kind of greeting were untenable. Perhaps it helped my argument then that my stepfather said hello merely as a means of control–something which, for him, would indeed clarify general usage. Oh, it was obvious. It was in the way his eyes would linger on us after a greeting, waiting for the proper response in such a way as to say, “I’m now waiting for the proper response.” The rest of us would acknowledge him then–a small price to pay for a momentary semblance of amity. But if there was little he could do to coax us to greet each other (“Your brother just got home,” he might say, “so what do we say? Aren’t we going to be civil?”), we were still expected to greet him superfluously, and this required keeping track of the man. Which, after a while, I had begun to do anyway, if only so that I could be somewhere else.
It was all very taxing, to the point where I was forced to forego the act of greeting summarily, even in cases where I hadn’t seen someone for a very long time. Greeting, for me, became a loathsome pleasantry. An obsolete social trifle that I looked down upon unabashedly. This suspension of greeting was, in fact, the only viable avenue I had for balancing the scales that my stepfather had tipped so decidedly in his favor. It was a power struggle, albeit an esoteric one that the rest of my family were unlikely to fully appreciate. I was the only one doing anything about this greeting power trip, and when I started getting the rude looks from others, I wanted to say, “Hey, you want a greeting, you know exactly where to go. Because you’re not getting shit out of me.” I felt righteous.
Perhaps like all stepfathers, my stepfather eventually faded from the family picture. But even so, it took me years to get over the stigma of greeting people. To this day I’m still self-conscious about it, and I think that’s quite a legacy to leave for merely entering a room.