by Emily Daniel
Last week, a funny thing happened on the way to the Craft House. I popped into Stirling’s just before arriving at my destination, unable to resist the temptation of a hot chai latte and a chocolate chip ginger scone, and as I walked up to the counter—cinnamon-y visions of my favorite order dancing in my head—I saw a strange, little note taped to the white surface before me. “Save Sewanee,” it read, followed by a brief but polite message asking patrons to please refrain from cellphone use while ordering. “Save Sewanee,” I thought to myself, lattes and scones all but forgotten. Man, there’s a phrase I haven’t heard in a while.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phrase, don’t worry. When people say, “Save Sewanee,” they don’t mean that the University is in any sort of physical or financial danger (at least, I don’t think it is). Rather, “Save Sewanee” is the slogan adopted by those here at Sewanee who, more or less, oppose cellphone use in public areas around the campus, as it supposedly prevents students from engaging each other in that friendly, easy-going way for which we are historically famous. As you might have guessed, the “Save Sewanee” campaign is directly linked to one of Sewanee’s many time-honored traditions: the “passing hello.” According to a rather informal article published on that paragon of reliability, Wikipedia, the tradition of the passing hello is rooted in the customs of small towns in the American South, where it is common to greet your neighbors with a smile and hello when you see them on the street—because, as it is a small town, your neighbors are invariably people that you know. Similarly, Sewanee attempts to recreate the friendliness and sense of community that is often felt in small, Southern towns on campus by suggesting that students greet each other as they pass by. However, in recent years, some feel that the popularity of this tradition has been threatened by the rise of cellphones and mp3 players, which, obviously, can prevent students from speaking to one another as often as the University might like. There is even a group, such as those behind the “Save Sewanee” campaign, that frowns on any use of technology in public places such as in McClurg and encourages students to limit their cellphone and mp3 use to a minimum, so that the tradition of the passing hello will continue to be preserved.
Now, I’m not here to tell you that you should never, ever use your cellphone or iPod while here at Sewanee—but I’m also not here to tell you that the tradition of the passing hello is completely irrelevant, either. As an avowed introvert, I know how awkward and even anxiety-inducing forced socialization can be, and for many introverts, the advent of cellphones has allowed them to avoid unwanted socializing without feeling uncomfortable or rude. However, I also know how nice it is to receive a smile and a “hello” from your classmates, maybe those you don’t even know, as you pass them on the street. I don’t know what it is about that smile and hello, but somehow, like a small burst of sunshine, it instantly brightens up my day. The importance of niceness—not exuberant friendliness, not extravagant philanthropy, but simple niceness—is often discounted in society today, but I believe that something as simple as a smile and hello has a tremendous kind of power of which most people are not even aware. Think about it: you’re having an awful day, and then someone comes along and tells you they like your shirt, or smiles at you, or maybe even just nods in your general direction. Perhaps it sounds vain, but, in my experience, small acts of kindness like these have a profound ability to transform people’s moods—not their circumstances, but simply the way they view those circumstances. Without exaggeration, these small acts of kindness restore my faith in the human race.
So, by all means, if you need to make an important call, or look up a homework assignment, or even if you just aren’t in a chatty mood, please use your cell phone! Most people will understand, I promise you. However, when you pass that kid from your Spanish 200 class on your way to the Pub, you might want to consider telling him hello, or even just smiling at him. There’s a reason that Sewanee’s tradition of the passing hello has lasted for such a long time. Your small act of kindness might not change the world or “Save Sewanee,” but it might just brighten someone’s day.