September 28, 2004
You are at work and your four cups of morning “joe” force you to the washroom. On your way, down the hall, coming right at you, is the guy who works two departments over. You have never officially met, but you are pretty sure his name is Steve. You think he knows your name too, but you can’t be certain. Years have passed without ever having a conversation with Steve, so now is hardly the time. Never one to be rude, you have to acknowledge him, but you can’t say his name, in case it isn’t Steve. Luckily, he is in the same boat as you, and as you pass each other, you exchange scrunched faces and raised eyebrows which, without a single word spoken, seem to say, “Hello. I know of you and see you every day, but I don’t really KNOW you. You seem like a nice enough person, but I hardly have the time to converse with mild acquaintances. Good day.”
Anyone reading this from a cubicle has been there before. Numerous times each day, that guy, that woman, etc., walks past and you just politely smirk. It starts with a lip scrunch; the kind of expression you might make if kissing a corpse. Then the eyebrows raise a half notch to indicate acknowledgement of the other party. A whole notch would be too much. A whole notch indicates surprise or confusion. A whole notch says, “What? The Cubs won the World Series?? I can’t believe it!!” A whole notch would be necessary if Mike Ditka was a Senator. A whole notch was even necessary when it was announced that Mike Ditka was CONSIDERING running for the Senate. A half notch, however, is all that is required for the silent hello.
As a teenager, a simple headbob was acceptable in high school halls. Guys would stick out their chin to acknowledge an acquaintance, but that’s too intimidating for the workplace. As we exchanged our copies of Catcher in the Rye for Dilbert calendars, we have also exchanged our silent hello to one much less menacing.
To the inexperienced cube dweller, the workplace hello looks a lot like we are all walking around with an “I don’t know” expression on our mugs all day (which is actually true in some offices). The difference goes back to the eyebrow raise. Eyebrows too high say “I’m very confused and don’t understand much.” Eyebrows too low say “I’m grumpy and have nothing to say.” Eyebrows raised the correct half notch say “I understand how it works here. I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me.” Words are unacceptable for the silent hello, but a muted monosyllabic grunt is allowed.
Now that the silent hello has been outed, more of your coworkers should have a better understanding when you are staring at them confused and ready to kiss a corpse. Or, you can just say “hi,” but why confuse them?