While on a recent hike in Hawaii I was struck by something that has occurred to me before but that seemed even more noticeable on this occasion. I tend to say hello to people I’m passing on a trail and it is interesting to me – especially this time – that some people respond while others do not. On my hike in Hawaii, typically someone in the party passing me would smile brightly and greet me back. However, not in every case did this occur. This caused me to wonder what we gain by maintaining separateness such that to broach a silence in between ourselves seems an unnatural choice.
I thought about how much we need human contact and connection however simple and small; how much this need seems to grow with the stresses of the times. So how do people make decisions to either acknowledge another person or not? What do we gain by not greeting one another? I can understand the need for solitude and personal space. One of the reasons to be on this hike, in fact, was to go into a quiet place and away from the busyness of Honolulu. Does a short greeting, a quiet smile, or a nod interrupt reverie or cause a disruption of personal space? For some perhaps it does. Or are there other reasons for “containing” oneself? I wondered if fear of one another ever causes this distancing.
It is difficult not to make assumptions about why it is not consistently common to greet or acknowledge one another – why people don’t do it and why people don’t respond when they are greeted by another. However, it is clear I really don’t know why we are different in this way. As I walked that trail to a beautiful waterfall, the number of people for whom this simple exchange was not a practice made me think hard about the practice of strangers greeting strangers.
As I said “hi” and smiled at some though, faces lit up (sometimes in surprise) and they greeted me back making me feel a bonheur that I know, for me, stems from the simple connection with another. Facial, verbal, and sometimes non-verbal expressions of greeting appear to be universally understood. Some people greeted me before I could greet them – it seemed natural and open. I passed German families, French couples, U.S. families, and the ability or willingness to exchange a brief human greeting was not related to nationality nor was it related to gender as far as I could tell.
Compartmentalizing ourselves has not helped in the past. The cocooning trend of the 1990’s seems to be coming back as people cope with the stresses of their lives on their own. How much better would it be for us all if we actively looked for connections with each other? If we developed a higher degree of awareness of others near us and if we extended ourselves to each other – even a little bit? What would change? I was struck by these questions as I passed people on that trail – a trail we all had set out on because we knew it led through and to a beautiful place. We had commonality in that.