The case of the vanishing goodbye
A friend complains that nobody says goodbye anymore. At least people have stopped saying goodbye to him. He keeps having these telephone conversations that end without so much as a ''So long,'' ''Take care,'' or - the worst! - ''Be good.''
One moment there's a voice out there, chattering along as if time had stood still, and then there's a sudden ''We-ell. . . . '' or ''Oka-ay. . . . '' or just a gotta-run gulp, and the line's gone dead. Our friend is listening to a dial tone, with a God-bless-ye formed on his surprised lips - too late again.
Come to think of it, we've noticed a couple of acquaintainces terminating conversations by sidling away from us on the street - lots of shuffle, lots of body language, right hand raised in wiggly farewell . . . but no goodbye. It seems to happen when we're doing a comical turn - telling a marvelously funny Anglo-Saxon ethnic story or doing our almost uncanny impression of Rich Little doing his impression of Kirk Douglas. These rude and abrupt departures certainly prove to us our friend's contention that something totally inexplicable is going on.
For the moment, we're advising our friend - and anybody else troubled by silent exits - to join forces with the people troubled by the decline and fall of the big hello. It is our hunch that the same folks who aren't saying goodbye aren't saying hello either.
A fighter for the preservation of beginnings and endings to conversations can start by celebrating the ninth annual World Hello Day on Nov. 21. The founders of the Hello Day International - Brian and Michael McCormack of Omaha, Neb. - see the exchange of hellos as a token that people ''can communicate . . . and live together in peace.''
Unlike goodbye, hello seems to have no special derivation. As the dictionaries say, it is ''of imitative origin'' - meaning, hello started as pure sound, a whoop. Still, it's pleasant to think of oneself being greeted with some jubilation, and in our opinion hello is to be preferred over howdy (as in how do you do?) or howyadoin' or hiya.
In any case, we think the brothers McCormack are not being absurd to connect a modest degree of civility with world peace. Manners constitute a kind of buffer state, which social shorthand has long been eroding. There was the contraction to hi and bye, which became popular, according to the Dictionary of American Slang, around 1920. Somewhere along the line the bow gave way to the nod, the handshake to give-me-some-skin.
Once you went to a party, and a footman formally announced your arrival, complete with any titles, for all the civilized world to know. Now, before you can even get your earmuffs off, a complete stranger rushes up to you and says, ''Hi, I'm Mary. I'm into computers.''
The etiquette-efficiency experts say that we're streamlining our manners to save time. This sort of efficiency makes about as much sense as leaving your shoes laced at night.
The explanation, we fear, goes deeper. The fact is, we don't seem to like preliminaries - they're so insincere. There is instant engagement and equally instant disengagement. Whoever speaks of courtship? And at the other end, no codas of regret, please. We are determined to keep connections - and disconnections - not only casual but as if they never happened.
Yet the conversation that begins and ends without any ceremony at all is lacking in humanity. Hello and goodbye (or their substitutes) are rituals shared by two pilgrims who understand that a lot of life is a solitary coming-and-going down that old lonesome road. And when there is an encounter, that occasion should be given value by a salutation and a final prayer to round it off.
Our goodbye-starved friend happened to make his complaint over the phone. It took us almost 10 minutes to hang up, but the tapering fadeout was worth it.