"Every time you walk down the street, everybody says hello."
This is a statement that Miss Manners has heard in a variety of tones of voice:
Proud, as in "I come from a charming place! Folks in THIS city are soooo rude."
Plaintive verging on petulant, as in, "I come from a village, so don't expect me to be as sophisticated as all you cos-mo-pol-i-tan types."
Exasperated, as in "Is there no privacy around here at all?"
Rattled, as in "Who are these people, and what do they want from me?"
But if attitudes are contradictory about greeting and being greeted, etiquette rules are even more so. Hikers properly greet those approaching them on the trail, but tourists who happen to be visiting the same site do not. Passengers on airplanes used to introduce themselves, but no longer do; bus passengers sometimes do, only to find their seatmates making sudden departures.
It is not always a question of the friendly approach being polite and its omission being rude.
It would be rude, for example, to greet someone you know who is having a hilarious time with an incongruous-looking person and who covers his face with the menu when he sees you coming. This acquaintance is probably conducting important business, and cannot spare the time for social niceties.
Nor would it be polite to roam around parking lots at night offering greetings to strangers as they unlock their cars. Or for unrelated adults to hang around schoolyards saying hello to stray children.
Yet the excuse of "I'm just trying to be friendly" always resonates with Americans, for whom being open to friendship is a virtue.
This is not necessarily because we are bigger-hearted than others, although Miss Manners does not rule out that happy possibility. A country that began by staking out sparsely populated territory and has continued ever since to be an unusually mobile society has to condone making friends fast.
That was a huge departure from European customs, which Americans then began to ridicule as snobbish. It is not a fair charge, even though we needn't feel sorry for people who were having such a good time ridiculing Americans for being open.
Friendliness toward strangers is necessarily context-dependent. When you live in crowded cities, very likely spending your entire life in the same one with all your nursery school classmates, you don't need to make new friends at every turn. What you need from strangers is for them to please keep out of your way. And to refrain from scaring you.
You still must acknowledge those you know, those whom you frequently encounter, and those with whom you have even fleeting business transactions. In small towns or other restricted areas, such as a campus, that may mean nearly everyone; in large cities, it may mean very few, but it does include neighbors and shopkeepers.
Yet the tendency is either to chat up everyone, including the express-checkout clerk who is trying to move the line along ("And what about your cousins, are they fine, too?"), or to ignore next-door neighbors and tablemates at large social gatherings.
To cover these different situations, there is a range of greetings:
Dearest friends and close, but not necessarily dear, relatives: kiss air near cheek, once or serially, depending on local custom. Next circle, handshakes or equivalent gestures, depending on generation.
The same group encountered where silence is expected, for example at the movies or a funeral: Meaningful nod.
Household companions, neighbors, co-workers: acknowledgement upon arrival and departure, ranging from "Good morning" and "Good evening" to "Hi, is there some coffee made?" and "OK, I'm out of here."
Acquaintances glimpsed on the street: Pleasant nod without breaking stride.
Strangers: Maintain stride without breaking into a smile.
Strangers with whom one is trapped, as at a wedding dinner or shipwreck: Full introduction.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: A friend of mine is to be a bridesmaid in a wedding in October, when she will be eight months' pregnant. She would like to prepare some ripostes for those at the wedding who will find it necessary to comment on her pregnant state, which will be readily apparent. How do you suggest she handle the 37th instance of "Well, you're just about ready to pop, aren't you?"
GENTLE READER: By producing her most benign maternal smile and saying gently, "Yes, and you might want to step out of the way."