Arrivals and Departures
When newspapers regularly carried a page reporting the latest births, marriages, and deaths, they were sometimes jokingly referred to as the “hatches, matches, and dispatches.”
But that’s how it is, in many aspects of our lives. Things and people pass through our awareness, almost as if each one of us were a train station or an airport, with special doors and gates for arrivals and departures, and waiting places in between.
Dramatists have represented the comings and goings of human existence in various ways. Shakespeare, in one famous speech (generally called “The Seven Ages of Man”), sees the world as a stage, with the same person coming on and going off, in different Acts, playing different roles as he grows and ages. (Shakespeare himself, dying at 52, was just leaving his own Fourth Age, characterized, as he wrote, by “seeking the bubble reputation.”)
Many years later, Thornton Wilder wrote a one-act play called The Long Christmas Dinner, which lasts 26 minutes on the stage, but covers 90 years, in the life of one family, who, throughout the play, are all seated at the same Christmas dinner table. There is one door for arrivals, and one for departures. As people age, they put on white wigs, and the ladies put on shawls. One part I particularly remember comes when a young man had to leave because there is war, and he had been drafted. But somehow, he (or the author) knows that he won’t be coming back, so, as he leaves, and goes through the departure door, he throws his white wig away.
As a teenager, I did not generally have a happy life at home with my family — and, as soon as I was old enough, I took every opportunity to go off on long hitch-hiking trips, sometimes for months at a time. But there was something very warm and special about coming home again to our small house in Edgware (a suburb of London), to my mother and father, and my sister, Myrna, and my dog, Happy. That feeling didn’t usually last for very long — but it gave me my own memories of what it was like to be an “arriver.” (I was thinking about this when I dedicated one of my first works, “To my mother and father – who were always glad when I came home.”)
But what do we say to people in these coming-and-going situations?
For greetings upon meeting — our most common salutation — “hello” begins (in case you hadn’t noticed) with hell. But if you’re a host, surely the most common and appropriate expression is: “Welcome!” In formal social settings, it’s still considered correct, by some authorities, to say (or ask), “How do you do?” The trouble with that is that there’s no correct answer, except to respond with the same words.
(I once visited a penfriend in a small French village, who took me to meet his high school English teacher, who probably had not met many English people. She was upstairs in her house when we approached, and she leaned out of the window, and called down to me, “How do you do!”)
But most Americans today, even in a proper setting, consider such words very stiff, and they would vastly prefer to say, “How are you?” or, even more chummily, “How ya doin’?” But you must be careful here. If you ask some people how they are, you run the risk of receiving a detailed answer.
As for departing, it partly depends on the relationship, and how long a separation is expected. Something pleasant but meaningless, like “ta-ta” or “cheerio” will serve for many informal occasions. In many languages, however, the etiquette is to look forward to the next meeting. I remember, as a child, hearing Lowell Thomas on the radio, signing off with “So long!” Only years later did I learn that “So long” meant “it will seem so long till the next time.” “Goodbye” has a more religious tone, solemnly wishing, in an abbreviated form, that “God be with you.” Or, as they say in Spanish, “Go with God.” However, if you want to leave God out of it altogether, “farewell” pretty much covers all the other bases.
It can be a problem, though, if there are guests who haven’t left yet, but you want to politely hasten their departure. I will leave you with this legendary faux pas of the flustered host (which we’d now call a Freudian Slip):
“Must you stay? Can’t you go?”