2005-10-04

On friendliness to strangers.

Today is the first day that feels like autumn. I'm not talking about the temperature per se, but that surely has a lot to do with it. What I'm referring to is a vague melancholy in the air that tends to set in some time between September and November, and can last for weeks, even until the first snowfall. There's nothing particularly nasty about the weather; it's cool and gray, but there is no rain or sleet yet. So I'm not sure why it feels like fall today and didn't yesterday. The forecast calls for sunshine tomorrow, but that isn't soon enough for me.

So when I got dressed and had my morning cup of coffee, I resolved to make the day a sunny day through a sunny disposition.

On the subway platform this morning, I saw an elderly genteman walking toward me. I smiled at him and nodded hello. He looked a bit surpried to be greeted by a total stranger, but after a moment's hesitation, he returned the gesture. This brief exchange, which lasted only a few seconds, probably brightened my day and his. It is said that a smile costs the giver nothing but gives happiness to the recipient. As I walked from the Hötorget station to the IBM office on Wallingatan, I thought about this philosophy, and why it's not always easy to live by it.

Living in a crowded city makes people more isolated from one another. When people are packed closely together, such as on a subway, they often react by ignoring those around them. No doubt this is a natural reaction meant to protect what little personal space we have. But the fact of the matter is that we're all neighbors, so what do we risk by being friendly to one another?

First, we risk letting into our space people that we don't want anything to do with — obnoxious people, loud people, imposing peoeple. If a stranger smiles at you, your first reaction probably has a lot to do with what you make of the person's intentions. Is the smile just friendliness, or does the stranger want something from you? We make snap judgements of other people's intentions without even thinking about it, and we do this a thousand times per day. This too is perfectly natural. No one wants to get dragged into a conversation with an incoherent drunk asking for beer money.

Second, it's quite possible that the act of kindness will not be seen as such. When we smile at a stranger, we take the risk that the stranger will frown — not smile — in return. The old man's initial reaction was one of surprise. He did a double-take just to see if I really was smiling at him or if he had seen it wrong. Only once he was sure did he return the smile.

It occurred to me that most people actually want to be friendly, but they just don't dare to make the first move, mostly because they don't know what reaction they'll receive. It takes a bit of courage to show friendliness to strangers, but I think it's worth it. A smile can spread a bit of sunshine on a cloudy day, and at this time of year in Stockholm, we need all the sunshine we can get.

1 comment:

Ablund said...

Well spoken my friend :-)