''Hi Honey, I'm home!"
This classic phrase conjures visions of mothers in aprons coming to the door to greet fathers with briefcases. A peck on the cheek, dinner on the table -- all that seems so passé. Now we check in by cellphone, rush home to do more work, juggle, hurry, multitask. Who needs to mark the arrival at the end of the day?
We do, more than we think.
Elinor Ochs is a linguistic anthropologist and a MacArthur Fellow who rues the seeming demise of this ritual. For five years, she has led a team of two dozen anthropologists, archeologists, and nearly every other ''-ologist" you can think of in a study of the modern American family.
Largely through hundreds of hours of videotape, her team at UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families has probed every aspect of life in 32 diverse California families. For Ochs, one of the most intriguing findings is that we tend to ignore those threshold moments.
In the observed families, wives stop what they are doing and welcome home a returning spouse only a little more than a third of the time. Mostly, they are too irritable or busy to do so, says Ochs.
Husbands do better, with more than half offering a positive greeting to a spouse. Children greet their fathers, who are mostly the last to return, positively only a third of the time, and often don't even look up when the dad reenters the house.
''I ask myself, is it no longer the case that we're supposed to appreciate our parents or our spouse? Is it a relic of the Victorian family? I don't think so," says Ochs, who partly attributes the change to the rise of what she terms a ''child-dominated" society that denigrates parental respect.
Jan Stearns is a convert. Until recently, she and her husband exchanged only a cursory hello at day's end. She was too busy fixing supper, doing chores, and decompressing from her job as the marketing director of a Waterville, N.H., real estate company to really ask about his day. Her husband, a painting contractor, was too tired to chat. Their 17-year-old son returned from school and silently fled to his room.
Then two close family friends died within four months, one in a morning car accident last month after a squabble with her teenaged son. Shaken, Stearns and her husband Harry, son Tyler and 14-year-old daughter Jenna talked about trying to acknowledge one another at both ends of the day.
Now she greets her returning son, and he comes out of his room a bit more. When her husband gets home, he and Jan hang out in the kitchen, often with Jenna.
''It's hard to want to focus on your family," says Jan Stearns. ''It's much easier to ignore them than it is to ignore your customers, your co-workers, and for the kids, the schoolwork."
Like funeral rites, a greeting is a ritual in all world societies, says Alessandro Duranti, an anthropologist and expert on greetings. They come in pairs; to have just one person speak is ''defective," in anthropology lingo. Greetings are relatively predictable, but show who is worth recognizing in our social sphere, he says.
Does he think greetings are important? Duranti, a UCLA professor who is married to Ochs, unfailingly welcomes her when she returns home, and vice versa.
Perhaps we now keep in such close daily high-tech contact with family that we hardly feel separated anymore. In a boundaryless world, maybe thresholds have less meaning. Yet even as we do away with greetings, we miss them and feel uneasy turning our backs on returning kin.
Ted Crocker, a stay-at-home dad near San Francisco, is wistful that he offers nothing more than a shouted hello from the kitchen when his wife, a human resources executive, returns home. Their children, ages 10 and 12, generally remain glued to homework or video games.
He says chores take precedence over such rituals. But his wife Cynthia feels stung. A greeting is a mark of being accepted back into the family fold, she says.
''I think subconsciously at first, one feels wistful or a little bit woebegone when one returns home and nobody's around to greet you except our faithful dog," she says.
Other than dogs, the only stalwart greeters are small children. So Liz Mulvey is savoring the fact that when she gets home nightly in Hingham, she is welcomed warmly by her husband Tom, an Episcopal minister, and their children, Victoria, 9, and Thomas, 5. Nearly every day, the kids run to the door or urge her to immediately join them at dinner.
''I guess they're too little to be wrapped up in homework and computers," says Mulvey, a lawyer. ''I'm enjoying it while it lasts."
Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.