A Proper Greeting (and it isn't 'Hey')

Hey, reader.

If you bristle ever so slightly at the presumed familiarity of that salutation, you're almost surely over 40, and you likely grew up well north of the Mason-Dixon line.

If you say "hey" back, the demographic possibilities are a lot broader. Everyone from anywhere who was born after 1980 seems to have adopted this onetime Southern regionalism, as have over-40s who work in a business that uses "trending" as a verb and requires them to stay forever young.

I get "hey" emails and in-the-hallway greetings from students who've never been as far south as Philadelphia, who hail from India and Austria, from the Northeast and the Midwest and Canada. If you doubt "hey's" ubiquity, I refer you to anchors and reporters on any nightly TV news show, to the fictional guardians of our national security on "Homeland" and to your local barista, who is as good a barometer of spoken-word trends as anyone, given the volume of greetings he or she fields each day.

On the surface it's just style, the equivalent of hollow-center earrings or bell-bottoms in their first or second or third iteration. Heysayers like the greeting because it seems more immediate, more genuine, less fussy than an old-school greeting like the spoken "hello" or "good evening" or the written "Dear Dr., Mr., Mrs. or Ms.," now all but extinct. It has a bit more of an edge than the more demure "hi." "Hey" is so right now.

Or so in your face, at least to people who grew up with indented paragraphs. "Hey" can sound dismissive; in the long ago, it's what people yelled to get the attention of someone they didn't know or care to know, as in, "Hey, you." I remember an adult, possibly my fourth-grade teacher, muttering, "Straw is cheaper and grass is for nothing" when a child said, "Hey." It was a sloppy place holder. Along with its descendants — "like" and "y'know," or the dread combo, "like y'know" — it indicated a lazy mind.

That's a lot of freight for a little word to have to carry, and I don't mean to give it too hard a time. I'd just like to suggest that we hesitate before we turn our backs on the salutational past and rush blindly off the linguistic cliff, like so many texting lemmings.

To its credit, "hey" aspires to be democracy in action, the same short syllable for everyone regardless of status or class, which has a certain egalitarian appeal; it makes sense if, like me, you're a devout believer in earned, not presumed, respect. A partisan could even argue that we should all start at "hey" and then win the right to be called "sir" or "madam," "dean" or "doctor."

Still, I worry about deeper meaning. There's a prevalent disdain for all authority these days, which seems healthy when we're talking about Congress' behavior but not so smart when the topic is prohibiting the use of cellphones while driving. We need to be able to distinguish, to maintain standards with case-specific vocabulary, and "hey" inadvertently wipes out judgment — what feels like fair is really just vague.

Here's an analogy: In Steven Soderbergh's film "Contagion," a healthcare official being harassed by a venal blogger blurts: "Blogging isn't writing. It's graffiti with punctuation." OK, I don't entirely agree with him, but that's beside the point. He's talking about the good that comes from considering how you say what you say, about the happy synergy of discipline and communication.

My problem with "hey," I guess, is that it doesn't tell me much. I like considered variety, which to me is real democracy in action. Everyone gets what fits, from "Hi, kiddo" for someone I'm trying to cheer up to "Dear First-and-Last Name," because for me the standard honorifics all fall short, and what if a stranger has a genderless name like Dana? A friend calls me her "little chicken," which might not sound like much of a compliment to you, but I wear it like wings; it's mine and mine alone.

I say, have a little fun. Make a conscious choice. Be a true rebel, tied neither to the old nor the new. Try "Excuse me, So-and-So, do you have a moment to talk?" Or use a title for starters and wait for the gracious, "Oh, just call me Mike."

I've waited for years for a language expert to identify the person I think of as Speaker Zero, that teen (probably female, given the way this has played out) who first tilted her sentences to rise in inquiry at the end and spawned a trend big enough to have a name — uptalk — and virulent enough to have infected the occasional big-issue sound bite. But language moves fast, in waves, and by the time somebody with a research grant gets interested in "hey," it will surely have been replaced by the next greeting du jour.

My imagination doesn't stretch far enough to guess what that will be. I'll settle for being grateful if, unlike bell-bottoms, the Stallonian "yo" never gets a second chance.


For The Los Angeles Times