Dear Rachel,

Once a week, I take a woman’s exercise class. I’ve been going there for years. We’re about 12 women who come on a regular basis. We don’t talk much while there; it’s usually “strictlyOne of the women was missing for a few weeks business,” but we always greet each other. One of the women was missing for a few weeks, so after class when she came back, I asked her in a casual, friendly-like way, “So where have you been the last couple of weeks?” She looked at me suspiciously and answered coldly, “What difference does it make?” I felt like I’d been slapped. “I was just being polite,” I answered and then shot out of the room with much more energy than I had displayed during the workout. I was beside myself! Who answers a friendly query like that? Did I do something wrong?


Dear Friendly Person,

I can perfectly well understand your reaction. You were showing interest in and concern for another person, and the response you got was having the door you were knocking on slammed in your face. This is a clear illustration of a personality clash. You are obviously an open, friendly, warm person seeking connection. She is most likely a closed and guarded person who viewed your remark as intrusive and threatening. While the reason she had been away might have been painful or private (and let’s give her the benefit of the doubt), she certainly could have answered in a more gracious way: “Thank you for asking, but it’s personal.”

The Mishna tells us to receive everyone with a pleasant countenance.1 Rabbi Matia ben Charash says: “Be first to greet [literally, say shalom to] all people.”2 And it was said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai that no one ever preceded him in a greeting, even a stranger in the marketplace.

SoThe Talmud encourages friendly interactions the Talmud encourages friendly interactions. That’s because each of us, our souls, has a spark of the Divine in it, and when we show each other love, we are showing G‑d our love as well. We are all part of one spiritual whole, and G‑d loves it when we express our love to one another. Unfortunately, many of the tragedies of Jewish history (like the destruction of the Second Temple and the deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students, to name just two examples) occurred because people weren’t giving each other the proper love and respect.

Both Hillel and Rabbi Akiva emphasized the importance of loving your fellow and certainly, at a bare minimum, being gracious and polite to them even if you’re not a warm and fuzzy person. The face (including your eyes and your smile) are publicly seen and should always be pleasantly presented.

Try not to be resentful in this case, however. This woman has her reasons for being bitter, angry or defensive, all of which have nothing to do with you. She may be going through a hard time personally or professionally, and while I wouldn’t advise you try to engage her in conversation again, you certainly can still smile and say hello.

Keep being the friendly, caring person you are, and don’t let any sour reactions stop you from engaging and connecting to other people.

And if you ever see me, please say hello!