I am usually in my head, as I’m walking down the street, riding in the elevator, or lining up for the cashier at the store. Sometimes I’m trying to solve issues, like how my client can shave ten minutes off their application process to address concerns that the sales process takes too long. More often than not, however, I’m trying to figure out issues of greater consequence, like determining if I could give up my love of basmati rice, and convert to lower calorie cauliflower rice, or contemplating how do they put the caramel in the Cadbury Caramilk bar. It’s anyone’s guess what category of issue I’m pondering at any point in time, but one thing is certain: I’m often far away from the present moment, including what’s going on around me.
As a result of my deep thoughts, I would rarely say hello or good morning to people I encountered each day, but not because I’m anti-social, unfriendly and ill-mannered. More likely, it’s because I probably didn’t notice you. Living in a large North American city, this behaviour is normal. Some might even see it as a necessity, as we carve out some personal mental space while sharing the sidewalk, train, park, and coffee shops with millions of our fellow citizens. In a big city, being too friendly to strangers raises eyebrows.
I fit in. This existence worked for me.
Then I found myself working on a project in Barbados. In Barbados, like many places outside the bustling, population dense North American metropolises, people say good morning, each and every day. Not just to their neighbours and the garbage collector they see weekly; they say hello to any human being they encounter. In fact, not doing so is seen as rude. By taking a five-hour plane ride, I went from being a typical city-dweller to an impolite North American.
This was so stressful for me. I’m not rude. I’m actually a pretty good person. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love people, but I don’t dislike them. This was going to take a lot of effort to change a life-long habit.
I found myself having to regularly pull away from my contemplation, and be present. I had to say good morning as I passed people on the street, in my hotel lobby, in the office. As challenging as it was, I was surprised at the positive impact it had on me. A sincere good morning along with a smile is a simple and effective way of acknowledging other human beings. It’s a basic gesture that says, “I see you, I acknowledge your presence and I genuinely hope your day is good.” Well, not everyone actually cares how your day turns out and sometimes it’s just done by rote, but I am content in the belief that some of them do care. That brief, pleasant connection sets a pleasant tone for the day. It feels good to be seen.
But the complexity increased quickly. You see, in Barbados, not only do you say good morning, but once the clock strikes at noon, the greeting automatically switches to “good afternoon”.
I panicked briefly. Even if I saw someone in the morning and had said good morning, if and when I saw them again in the afternoon, this fresh new greeting was required. I’ve mastered many skills in my life but in that moment, I felt like this was beyond me. It was a lot of pressure. What time is it? Is a “good morning” in order or a “good afternoon”? Is this the first time I’m seeing you this afternoon, or have I seen and appropriately greeted you already? It took up far too much space in my brain. I worried that this would be my undoing, and I would forever be cast as unmannerly, uncouth and unpolished. How could I let people know that I was actually a good person, once you get past the basic manners?
I am happy to report that this courteous routine is a habit that became second nature with a little practise. I am now a pro. Sometimes, I can even ponder why some chocolate melts in your mouth and not in your hands, while wholeheartedly wishing someone a good afternoon with a big toothy smile.
Now, back in the city I share with a few million people, I’m a bit of an anomaly. I’ve adopted this “good morning” habit. I greet people each day, not because I think it’s a cool custom from a distant land, like faking a British accent after two weeks in the UK.
I do it because I love the concept of seeing and acknowledging the other humans
I share this planet with in a pleasant way.
Some people naturally greet me, and sometimes beat me to it. Some enthusiastically reciprocate after I greet them, although it’s clear they were mentally someplace else, and I’m interrupting their thoughts. Some begrudgingly respond in kind while sending out a silent message of, “who are you and why are you speaking to me?” It’s all good. If I’m to be hated, I’m happy to be hated for having good manners.
I’m not a social scientist or activist, but at a time when there are so many examples of our capacity to treat other human beings with indifference, harshness and even contempt, particularly those we define as strangers, I truly believe that the smallest step we can take to move towards seeing the humanity in each other and realizing we’re all in this together, is to see each other as humans, and treat each other with compassion, respect, and kindness.
Maybe, we can start changing the world with a simple “good morning.”