A warm greeting is a very simple and basic gift that we should be giving often, everyday, even to strangers. Making eye contact with a stranger, smiling and saying hello as you pass one another on the street, is a gesture of kindness, an acknowledgment of your common humanity and can change the course of another person’s day, and your own.
Over the past few years my wife and I, walking in the city a great deal, have noticed, and had numerous discussions about, the alarming decline in the number of people who are willing to make eye contact and say hello when passing on a city sidewalk.
We have wondered about this withdrawal from one another, whether it is due to technology and a tendency to be plugged in at all times, almost defensively, with headphones/music blocking outside sound and phone/texting distracting us from our surroundings. But those technology distractions are only a small percentage of the population that we encounter. Perhaps it is a response to specific fears of danger due to media hype, and an overload of information making people need or want to not engage. Fear sells and people often buy it.
Having strangers ignore a greeting, actively avoid eye contact, look at us (two middle aged women) strangely for being friendly only makes a person feel more alienated, unsafe, more lonely in the midst of a city of people hungry for real connection. It is hard not to take it personally, but we don’t let it deter us in our warmth and outreach. Those who do respond do so with what feels like gratitude, acknowledgement of the positive impact in that moment.
Years ago, as a college art student with a paper route that took me into tall apartment buildings, I smiled and greeted a young man as I got on the elevator to ride up to the top floor where we both got off. He had smiled back but was clearly shy about talking further. When I left the elevator I told him to have a good day and he responded with similar positive wishes to me. Over time I saw him often in that building and began to get to know him. We became friends. He later confided in me that the day that I first greeted him he had decided to take his own life and was going home from work to his apartment to do that. But my simple gesture of warmth toward him was just enough to give him hope and made him change his mind and live. That story has stayed with me as a testament to the power of a simple warm greeting.
My wife Kim and I, have always been the “smile and say hello” types, but we have begun to really work to make sure to warmly greet everyone that we see, to really see them, to notice their beautiful eyes, their smiles, try to make sure that we are a part of the solution, part of a powerful sharing of humanity, of a building up of decency. And you know what? It makes me feel better to do that. As our friend Nina, an Iranian American artist says. In Iran, in Farsi, they have a “Saying “Hi” brings health”. Meaning that it brings health to the giver, to the receiver and to our community.
As a continuation of my wife Kim's Blessings Project, that has taken several forms over the past 20 years, we are working on a Keep MKE Warm Smile and Say Hello campaign that will have stickers, a website and other means of communicating/encouraging people to join us in building a warmer more connected community.
So, when someone is approaching you don’t actively avoid eye contact. Smile and say hello to your fellow humans people! Keep MKE Warm (and every community).