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“Hi, Thanks, And Goodbye”

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Jean wasn’t kidding—she really did title one of her research papers “Hi, thanks and goodbye.” It was published in 1980, in a scholarly journal called “Language in Society.”

She wanted to know how mothers and fathers might play a role in their children learning the politeness routines of—you guessed it—saying “hi,” “thank you,” and “bye-bye.”

If you don’t wave, you’ll be despised.

Jean’s experiment was sort of…sneaky. She had 22 toddlers (aged 2 to 5 years) visit her lab twice, once with mom and once with dad. Each time, the parent and child would play for 30 minutes while the researchers secretly videotaped the interaction. Then, at the end of each session, a research assistant entered the room and nonchalantly asked the child a series of scripted questions.

Let’s call the assistant Julie and the child Johnny. The script went like this:

Julie: Hi, I’m Julie. Hi, Johnny. (Pause.)

Julie: Here’s a gift for you for today’s visit. (Pause.)

(Casual conversation.)

Julie: Goodbye, Johnny. (Pause.)

Later, the researchers poured through the tapes and counted how many times the children responded with the expected, polite response. The data may surprise you.

On average, the children spontaneously responded with “hi” or “bye” about 25% of the time, and said “thank you” only 7%. (Provocative aside: boys said “hi” 41% of the time, whereas girls did so only 18% of the time!)

Some children did not respond on their own, but did after being prompted by their parents. It turns out that most (51%) parents encouraged their kids to say “thank you,” but far fewer prompted them to say “hi” (28%) or “bye” (33%). Jean suggests this might be because parents assume that the children already know “hi” and “bye,” but still need to learn “thank you.”

Here’s the really interesting thing: these children seemed to be repeating, verbatim, what their parents told them to say, without understanding what they were saying or why they were saying it. In one case, a 2-year-old girl said “thank you” to the door after the research assistant had left the room.

It turns out that this happens when learning other language routines, too. For instance, in an earlier study, Jean showed that children learn to say “Trick or Treat!” on Halloween night long before they know what tricks or treats are. Similarly, even adults who have lost most of their speech, have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease carry out linguistic routines without any problem.

The bottom line of this research seems to be that learning social niceties—even when they’re not sincere or even fully understood—is a crucial lesson in human social development. As Jean puts it in the study: “The child who does not learn to say ‘hi,’ ‘thanks,’ and ‘goodbye’ will become a despised member of society. Anything that can have such an effect cannot be unimportant.”

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Virginia Hughes

    Virginia Hughes is a freelance science writer in Brooklyn, New York, and she specializes in brains, genes, and the biotech industry. After wrangling human subjects in a large virtual reality lab, she turned to journalism and has since worked at Discover Magazine, Seed Magazine, and the science desk of National Public Radio. Her job entails visiting some of the world’s best laboratories, writing news and feature stories in her pajamas, Tweeting, and contributing to the delightfully quirky science blog, The Last Word on Nothing. Virginia’s secret life revolves around two activities: critiquing trendy New York City restaurants and playing with other people’s puppies.