Truly noticing others is fundamental to their self-worth
Morrie Schwartz spent time working in a mental institution when he was younger. It was one of his first jobs, after he received his Ph.D. he would observe mental patients and monitor their treatments. "One of the patients, a middle-aged woman, came out of her room every day and lay facedown on the tile floor, stayed there for hours, as doctors and nurses stepped around her. Morrie watched in horror. . . Every day she did the same thing: came out in the morning, lay on the floor, stayed there until evening, talking to no one, ignored by everyone. It saddened Morrie. He began to sit on the floor with her, even lay down alongside her, trying to draw her out of her misery. Eventually, he got her to sit up, and even return to her room. What she mostly wanted, he learned, was the same thing many people want—someone to notice she was there." (Pages 109-110)
We all need recognition. We need to feel that we matter. This doesn't mean that we should be running for glory and honor, but every human being has a basic and natural desire to be acknowledged as significant.
And we can give some of this significance to others simply by greeting them properly. We may not put much thought into how and when we say hello to someone, and we should ponder it more deeply.
The first thing to realize, which we certainly don't always think about, is that when we greet people with a 'good morning', we are actually giving them a blessing. We are telling them that we hope they will have a good morning. This is why, if you ever meet a grumpy person who responds to your 'good morning,' with a line such as, 'Who said it was good?', the response, besides being rude, is actually inaccurate. We are not defining the morning by saying 'good morning' rather, we are offering a blessing that it should be a good morning.
All greetings are meant in this way. The classical 'shalom aleichem' means literally that 'peace should be upon you', an excellent blessing which we always need. We find, as well (Ruth 2:4), that when Boaz returns to his workers in the fields he says, "G-d should bless you!" That is his greeting, and his greeting is a blessing.
The explanation would appear to be that when we see a fellow human being, we are obliged to acknowledge his value and importance. People don't usually say 'hello' to animals when they see them. This is why the Talmud (Brachos 6b) describes the neglect to greet someone as stealing; you steal his pride when you don't acknowledge his worth as a person with a greeting. But even in the greeting, you display your respect for the person even more when you offer him a blessing that he should succeed, that things should go well, that he should have a 'good morning.'
And the way in which we greet someone is also important. Ethics of the Fathers (1:15) tells us to greet people with a shining countenance. The Hebrew phrase used there is 'sever panim yafos', which literally means a thoughtful, pleasant face. We are not supposed to give someone a quick hello; rather, we should give them eye contact, thought, and genuine loving attention.
Morrie Schwartz did this:
"I came to love the way Morrie lit up when I entered the room. He did this for many people, I know, but it was his special talent to make each visitor feel that the smile was unique. . .And it didn't stop with the greeting. When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this—instead of a grumble from a waitress, or a bus driver, or a boss?
'I believe in fully present,' Morrie said. 'That means you should be with the person you're with. When I'm talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I'm not thinking of what's coming up this Friday. I am not thinking about doing another Koppel show, or about what medications I'm taking. I am talking to you. I am thinking about you." (Pages 135-136)
Later, Morrie told Ted Koppel of Nightline a similar thing:
"For me, Ted, living means that I can be responsive to the other person. It means I can show my emotions and feelings. Talk to them. Feel with them... When that is gone, Morrie is gone." (Page 162)
We can all be a little more sensitive to other people's needs—especially their need for recognition and companionship. This is how we help them realize their tremendous value as human beings.