One of the guidelines of behavior I attempt to maintain is a working application of the difference between being friendly and being familiar (or being friends). On the surface it sounds complicated, but I have found that doing so has helped me to become more professional in the process of everyday transactions. This is important to me because although you may always be familiar with those close to you, you needn’t be familiar with just anyone, such as grocery cashiers, salesman, and people who queue with you. However, you can always be friendly no matter what; the key is to know how far to go without crossing the boundary of acting like friends when you are really just strangers or acquaintances.
With my family and friends, I already know what the boundaries and comfort levels are of the various relationships. Therefore, the purpose of this post is to give my basic guidelines for being friendly to those not close to me without my being familiar. The first thing I do is make a pleasant face upon making eye contact with any person. Not only does this put my best face forward and enhance my image, it is also courteous to others who did nothing to deserve a scowl or glare. I don’t necessarily initiate a smile at everyone, depending on the feeling I get at the moment. The reason is that I don’t want to appear too glib or naive or to be encouraging unwanted attention. I also don’t think it’s realistic to walk around with a 24/7 pasted on smile, and when I try that, it looks fake. I do try to return all smiles I’m given. The technicalities of facial expressions vary amongst us all, and I don’t expect anyone to follow my preferences exactly. This is just the way that has been right for me.
The second way I distinguish between friendliness and familiarity is in greeting. I am not the type that waves for no reason at strangers while driving. I wave to thank and that’s it. I have lived in areas where waving at every random pickup truck that passed on the dirt road was the thing to do, and I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just a level of familiarity with strangers that I don’t feel obligated to maintain. I don’t greet people in person for no reason. I don’t go up to random cute children, polished women, or handsome men and gush all over them. I feel like they didn’t come to the gift shop or the cafe to be greeted by me, another customer. You can tell by my tone that nothing like that has ever happened to me and my family before. 🙂 I always try to return a greeting when spoken to me–that’s basic courtesy. I always greet (and try to be the first to greet) people I have chosen to interact with, such as those I am on hand to do business with, or someone whose assistance I need. I try not to start any conversation with someone without an appropriate greeting first (such as, “Excuse me, ma’am, could you tell me where the peanut butter is?” instead of “Where is the peanut butter? “).
Besides greeting, interactions with strangers also involve addressing them. My preference here is for “ma’am” and “sir” for anyone who looks above 18 or so. I cannot abide being referred to as “miss,” “miz,” “hun,” “sweetheart,” “mom,” or “hey you” and thus do not call others by these epitaphs. Again, your mileage may vary, but I feel the pitfall of familiarity is avoided completely by using the formal “ma’am” and “sir.”
After greeting and addressing someone a conversation usually follows. Sometimes the conversation is crucial to the interaction, such as discussing options for a major household purchase, and other times it occurs to pass the time, such as while the groceries are scanned. This is the time that many people, mostly inadvertently I’m sure, cross the boundary between being friendly and being familiar. I never feel obligated to share personal information such as names, ages, school enrollment, addresses, occupations, etc. This is my preference; I’m not paranoid that the person interrogating my children on their school’s name and grade level is going to stalk them. I just think that as a whole society needs to go back to minding its own business, and the details of my life simply do not have to be shared with anyone who pleases. Last Friday night, I made a late grocery run and encountered a chatty cashier at the evening’s end. He asked me if I had any plans for the weekend. I replied that I have plans most days. He said, “Aren’t you going to tell me what they are?” I replied that no, I don’t share personal details with grocery cashiers; I prefer that they just do their job and that they not attempt to make friends with me.
This is probably sounding really cold going up on the internet. But I really would be happy if customers and service providers alike would just focus on accomplishing their intended purpose without adding unnecessary familiarity to the process. The way my personality is (woman? introvert? who knows), any sort of personal interaction requires an emotional effort from me, and I prefer to reserve that effort for my actual friends and people I care about. I also easily get flustered so keeping things professional definitely makes life easier for me. And even though I think being friendly is a good idea, I would rather someone be a bit gruff and taciturn than that they go on and on grilling me about my life. I’m just trying to buy the food, people!