“All he did, really, was say hello.”
“What’s wrong with saying hello? It has become the norm to be distant and non-trusting of strangers…” These are the sentiments expressed by a young man known as the1janitor on YouTube, in his beautiful video commentary about talking to strangers and the human condition:
Last summer, my partner and I went for a morning walk in our Manhattan neighborhood, and set out to say good morning to as many people we crossed paths with that we could reasonably do. Saying good morning when we are out and about is something we each do as a matter of course. We are an interracial gay couple, and people often look surprised – sometimes happy, sometimes not – to see us. Sometimes people stare, and some look away when we see them staring, some do not. So, we decided to say good morning, both to make ourselves feel more comfortable, and to give people a way to relate to us other than shock.
It was a fascinating, and mostly joyous experience. Some people were startled, some didn’t say anything, but most people seemed pleasantly surprised, and happily replied in kind. It gave us a feeling of connection and warmth. Not warm yourself on a cold night kind of warmth, but pretty close to it. It was on the whole, a lovely experience, and changed our sense of community as we walked through our rapidly changing neighborhood.
I say hello with intention to people I do not know, or who are different from me (which, let’s be honest, is everyone). I say good morning to the workers whose lowered gazes seem to speak volumes about their unease at being in a neighborhood where they do not feel at home or welcome. They almost always look shocked to be greeted, cautiously smile with surprise, and say good morning. I say this not to imply that I am a holier than thou person. But rather, that it is important to me, and I think good for our world, that we connect with each other, and create an inclusive and caring environment that embraces all of us.
And, it creates a good vibe, if you will. I walk down the street a bit lighter and more joyously, sometimes for just that moment, and sometimes for the whole day. I think they do too. It makes a difference.
On the whole, when I say hello to strangers, they smile and say good morning back. We recognize each other and our shared human existence, which is that we are all here together. It changes the environment. It makes the activity of crossing paths and standing close together in an elevator a little different. More connected, more human. It creates opportunities for interplay and interaction between and among people, and therefore, possibilities for growth.
In our largely divided and segregated “I only talk to people I know, who will probably be people I think are just like me, or come from where I come from” culture, people are accustomed to being with their own kind, seeing their own kind, and getting close to their own kind. And in large cities, many people, even when they see each other every day on the street or in the lobby of their building, do not say anything to each other at all. We walk right by each other and do not say a word. Perhaps we don’t want to connect with each other, or we do, and don’t know how. Maybe we are frightened, or scared of rejection. Maybe we don’t care, or don’t think we are connected, or in the world together. Maybe we don’t even notice that there are people around us.
Not interacting and negating, not recognizing others, is a kind of interaction. And, I wonder what kind of impact it has on us. If we are able to ignore and negate each other when we are standing right next to each other, what does that look like when we live across the street, or the town, or the globe from each other? What makes it possible for us to relate in this way, and what other kinds of activities are made possible by it?
In his video, the1janitor gracefully shares the experience of catching himself having a very common, knee-jerk, judgmental and distant response to a child (stranger) saying hello to him. His call to action is for us to perform ordinary acts of humanity – to say hello to a stranger – and bridge the distance between us. What if we followed his lead? The possibilities are endless.