On a daily basis, I am bombarded by hello.
Outside my office, there are solicitors associated with a wide variety of nonprofits—Greenpeace, the Red Cross, Save the Children, and other organizations that are licensed by the city of Seattle to ask for charity support.
Some of these men and women are direct employees of said nonprofits, while others are hired by third-party firms to stand on street corners with three-ring binders emblazoned with representative logo and/or matching jacket and cap. In both cases, they are paid in an admixture of time-based salary and percentage commissions for money earned over the course of each day's work.
Life as a solicitor on the street is purely a numbers game. Having worked in the sales-hardened worlds of direct marketing, I can tell you that the average response rate for a direct-to-sale solicitation is 0.5%—meaning that you can talk to an average of 200 people via a printed sheet of paper and receive back one response in return. When dealing with emails or advertisements, the throughput can drop even lower, to mere tenths of a percent. And when dealing with telemarketing, the likelihood that you'll even be able to get a warm body on a land line to answer the phone is slim.
To see the amount of sustained effort it would require to engage an everyday person with a nonprofit solicitor, I sat outside during a busy lunch day and watched the solicitors working in the field.
A particularly effective fellow danced for the crowd, smiled and greeted each passerby directly, and then, with a forthright finishing move, stuck out one or both of his palms to create a direct, human connection with a tourist couple who couldn't help but chuckle at his firm grip. After being dismissed or shrugged at by about thirty people, he was finally able to start a conversation about Greenpeace.
For ten minutes on the street, that isn't a terrible ratio. He may look silly to dozens of passersby, but he was able to make people smile in return and take a moment of their day to at least stop and chat. He had stratagems and mechanisms that seemed to work.
I compared his activities to another woman who waved, smiled, and spoke to passersby on the other side of the street for the same time period. In the same time period, no one stopped to talk with her. (This isn't to say that she wasn't effective... we're aiming for average donations across a day, right? So she could have reeled in half as many people and earned twice as much in donations.)
Sitting and eating my banana and sandwich, half-shivering in the cold, I began to muse on this strange dichotomy. I'd been approached by both people, and it felt like the woman was more serious about the cause she was supporting than the man. She felt like someone who would give me straight answers about how I could help.
However, the man drew my attention and made me smile immediately—but I didn't feel comfortable shaking his hand. It felt like he was selling me on the experience of connecting over a cause.
Plus, it didn't help that he said (and I quote) "Would you deign to stop and converse with me?" Not hello. It implied that there was some form of importance to what I was doing (walking to my office), while what he was doing was of little to no significance unless he could initiate some form of interaction with me. By bringing (a somewhat servile) power dynamic into his question, he implied that I was the one who had the power to actually do something about the cause he was aiming to support. All of this, in a matter of microseconds. Word, image, sound, touch/sense: all adding up to a gut mistrust from the monkey mind, and all but keeping me from saving a dying whale.
Hello is just the first line in a long chain of words meant to afford personhood. This is why the use of new communication technology always starts with the ever-so-tenative "hi" and then stumbles onwards. It's a pleasantry. It's meant to linger on the cusp of good morals and upbringing and what you said to your mum when you came in from the big yellow bus.
Trying to create a sense of connection, trying to encourage the next communication, always moving one forward towards the inexorable goal of extracting money towards an implied, described result: this sounds like advertising more so than soliciting meaning.
In what ways can this paradigm be reversed? Perhaps in feeling like the solicitation is just for me (and not you million other important people). That there is a real, emotive connection happening between one person and another. This connection is additive, not just a jumble of bits. Is this stagecraft, storytelling, sincerity, or some kind of mash-up of the three?
How many times can we repeat the word "Hello" and still coax new meaning from it? What are the shared attributes of hello? What makes one hello more powerful than another hello?
I have a feeling that we will continue to apply bold and italics and whatever other typographic tricks we can muster to try and tart up our written words to fall short of that verbal handshake that only emerges from two people actually staring each other in the eye.
No amount of technology is going to rewire our brain chemistry to subsist sans physical contact. (Not until the aliens arrive, that is.) The word "Hello" is just the first blinking pixel in the interface of a conversational tapestry made up of real-world connections.
Besides, there are more important words than hello, that denote baser human needs—and that carve away at the illusions we use to disguise the lies we tell ourselves and others.
I sometimes carry an extra banana or apple in my bag, and whenever I pass a homeless person asking for change for food, I offer him or her the piece of fruit.
In all my years of doing this, not once has someone taken the food—even with me starting brief conversations regarding why I think they should take the fruit and eat it. In almost every case, the homeless person told me that they were actually seeking money for liquor. Edge cases included a man who professed allergies to said type of proffered fruit—which was followed by an offer of me going back into the supermarket they were standing in front of and purchasing them fruit that they wanted, which they also demurred. Another recent case also included a panhandler who not only asked me for money (not food), but when I said that I truly didn't have any on me, that he'd escort me to a cash machine to withdraw some to aid him. And let's not even mention the man who wouldn't take a ClifBar from me because he said they tasted gross... couldn't I get him some real food?
My wife and I often talk about what compassion really looks like—both in our daily lives, and in these situations on the street.
Sometimes, it's the yielding softness of a gracious hello, spoken by a relative you haven't seen in an eternity. It's the thank you from a volunteer coordinator at the AIDS clinic, after your session counseling those who have just been found HIV positive. It's the firm hello accompanied by handshakes all around the room, as you prepare to present a set of research findings that are going to shake everyone to their emotional core—both due to the data you've uncovered, and the raw honesty that you bring to your work.
But the compassion that I struggle with most is knowing that, when often confronted with a bold and provocative hello from a spirit that is clearly in need, you think you can see and feel through the guise of their immediate action into the tenor of the spirit that guides them, and the patterns of behavior that they fit into, support, or deny. What you feel glimmering beneath their hello is a destructive, terrifying need.
And in moving with that alleged, perceived pattern—and denying them the help they profess to desire—you may have cast aside that one person out of two hundred that was truly suffering, and could have used your help.