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Ever noticed the difference a smile or venturing to say hello can make?
Plenty, in my experience. Take, for example, the Chinese woman who swims next to me Tuesdays and Thursdays. If I don’t say it first, she insists on offering a huge greeting each and every time we encounter one another. It wasn’t always so. I’d heard other swimmers complain that, when forced to share a lane with her, she created heavy waves and took up too much room. They hinted that, perhaps, she didn’t understand our rules … you know, the ones we Americans apply … the unwritten and, often, culturally exclusive, ones.
One day when the lanes were full, I politely asked her if she’d share. No problem. I smiled and said hello first. You can’t image the doors that has opened with her and others. Not only did we share, but we did so without hindering the other, even managed to enjoy the crowded quarters.
Ever since, we greet each other warmly and have shared again. I missed her for many weeks after the first of the year, though her husband would show up. Turns out she was visiting her home in Hong Kong for six weeks. We took up where we had left off. I don’t notice that anyone other than her husband and another Chinese couple speak to her. A fellow swimming friend told me they lived in her neighborhood, but she wasn’t certain they spoke any English. I know she does.
It reminds me of the time I traveled to Italy solo and was reticent at first to speak Italian. I felt left out and lonely, then forced myself to belt out buon giorno each time I encountered anyone who would look me in the eyes: to the young man on the street in Florence, the well-builders in Chianti, the elderly woman at the market and the mother on the bus. Every time, I was warmly greeted just for having tried. It was a signal that I was opening myself to the world.
People complain that New York City is cold and impersonal. Years ago when my mother and I made a trip to view a Van Gogh show, a companion bus traveler gave us tokens to board. We were uninitiated and tried to use cash. The driver reciprocated her gesture, sailed through three stoplights and got us to the Met on time!
As an introvert, it’s not always easy to open myself to others, especially strangers. Children, however, are the exception. Creating that opening requires energy and confidence. I am not always in the mood to be so generous. When I am, the rewards more than make up for any effort.
Why is saying hello first so difficult?
Because opening to a stranger catapults us out of our little selves and comfort zone. Perhaps we’re too busy, in too much of a rush, are multi-tasking and didn’t even notice the other. Maybe we’re afraid or don’t want to bother, especially if we are merely visiting and will never see this person again.
But what a loss not to encounter the smile from a stranger’s lips if only fleetingly.
• What’s happens when I push myself to open to another, even a stranger, first?
• How many lost opportunities have I experienced?
• What has been the reward of such an encounter?
• What have I discovered is the best way to feel at home someplace else?
• What are the gifts of connecting with a stranger even for a moment?
all knotted up
in a tight ball
with room only
for my agenda
the man ready
to spend a smile
if only encouraged
with a few
or the woman
because I didn’t
want to engage
what of God was I
slighting in that person?
what of myself
was I hoarding?