Editorial: Greeting strangers on the street
Some readers will already have heard of the Swedish “Say hi” campaign – or, in Swedish, “säg hej.” An article at his link explains the reasoning behind the campaign that encourages people to greet each other, even if they are total strangers. The idea is to plant seeds of friendliness and to recognize that even a casual “Hi” from a passing stranger can help people feel more welcome and at home, and can even ease loneliness.
I live in Rossland. When I first arrived here in 1996, I was happy to be greeted by strangers of all ages – even young schoolchildren would smile and say “Hi!” as we passed each other on the sidewalks or side-streets. It was refreshing and delightful to be seen by friendly strangers, to be recognized as part of the community.
At that time, Rossland was the kind of place that the Swedish campaign is trying to create.
Over the past several years, more people have moved to Rossland from larger centres, whose denizens often practice a culture of not only never saying “hi” to strangers, but of refusing even to acknowledge their presence – don’t look at them, they probably want something from you – whatever you do, don’t look them in the eye! – and for your own safety never say anything to strangers. (Who knows what they might do to you?) It’s a culture that assumes the worst of anyone we don’t already know, and bolsters barriers against getting to know them except within the safe confines of a supportive group.
Here in Rossland, the percentage of people who smile and say “hi” to passers-by has decreased noticeably.
Silos and cocooning
Sometimes people just need to retreat from the world for a while – to “cocoon.” Sometimes we don’t feel comfortable interacting with anyone who isn’t part of our own little silo of values and priorities or our own safe little age group. And, I suggest that cocooning is fine – for a while; and restricting ourselves to our own silo is OK – for a while, once in a while.
We all have our groups of friends and other like-minded people with whom we are comfortable. But to treat all others as potential dangers – or non-existent — is, I suggest, unrewarding and emotionally impoverishing.
Shunning means avoiding, and in religious practice, it is a form of punishment for (former) members of a flock who have committed some offense against the moral standards of the flock. People will not look at the offender, or speak to them or eat with them. The shunned are made to feel non-existent as much as possible.
Standard big-city behaviour – never saying hi to strangers, never looking at people unless we already know them – is a way of shunning everyone we don’t know.
But what about stranger danger?
Children can be vulnerable to being groomed or abused by persuasive people, but statistics show that most cases of child maltreatment, sexual abuse, and abductions are perpetrated by people known to the child or family. It’s much more effective to teach children how to recognize behaviour – even from someone they think they ought to be able to trust – that poses a hazard to their safety. Children need to know what inappropriate touching is, and that it is bad for them, no matter who does it. They don’t need to be forbidden to say “hi” to strangers of any age, anywhere. They do need to be able to recognize when someone wants something inappropriate from them; they need to know when to withdraw their trust, even in someone they know and have trusted all their lives.
And don’t forget to smile
According to numerous online sources of information on health, smiling is good for us. One source says, “Smiling not only offers a mood boost but helps our bodies release cortisol and endorphins that provide numerous health benefits, including:
What’s not to like? Who knew smiling at strangers and saying “hi” could have so many advantages?
Ignoring strangers can be a hard habit to break.
Sometimes we can’t summon a smile because we feel so low that our faces just can’t do it. We don’t have to smile during those times. Let’s just hope they don’t last too long.
The rest of the time, please do give it a try – loosen up a bit, bother to smile and say “hi” to strangers — because it feels good, for everyone involved. Smile and say “hi” to strangers because it opens your heart a little bit – and theirs, too. Say “hi’ to strangers because it helps to make this community a more welcoming and friendly place, and who doesn’t want to live in a friendly and welcoming place? Especially such a beautiful one. Welcome, strangers.