As I was walking out of a supermarket this afternoon, a White dude coming towards me remarked “Howzit my China!” [A South Africanism which loosely translates into “Hello friend.”]
It took me more than ten seconds to respond with a “Hi.” And that was it. He went on his way into the supermarket and I back to my car, reflecting on my delayed response with an element of shame.
Why did it take me ten seconds to respond?
In that ten seconds, one of the first thought that came to mind was “Okay, what the fuck does he want?” And this is not the first time that I had felt that way, when greeted by a total stranger. But this is the first time I actually contemplated my reluctance to answer.
In South Africa, when greeted by someone familiar, the response is automatic, instinctual and prompt, but why when it’s someone you don’t know, there is hesitance and mistrust?
I remember being equally surprised while visiting Toronto in the 90’s and shopping with my uncle. While standing at the checkout line, I noticed how the cashier just got into spontaneous dialogue with what were obviously total strangers. This kind of thing hardly ever happened back home; I was more acquainted with just getting surly looks from cashiers.
I noticed the same thing on the street and the bus. People in Canada either knew everyone personally, or were quite comfortable with greeting and getting into conversations with total strangers. When I asked my uncle about it, and he answered that it was quite natural in Canada. And I suspected that it could well be quite natural in other first world countries too.
So why is it unnatural in South Africa? I really don’t know the scientific answer, but if I have to hazard a guess, it must have something to do with the harsh South African environment we live in where distrust of strangers is natural.
I recall a study conducted in the USA recently which indicates that people are increasingly becoming mistrustful (or was distrustful) of each other, or something to that effect. I suspect that if the study were to be conducted elsewhere in the world, there would be similar results. Again, it must have something to do with the parlous social, economic and political state of the world at the moment. One can just never be too careful.
But is this a good thing? In the short term, maybe it can save your life, but in the long term it is most certainly not a good place for the world to be in. How is it ever going to change?
Hell, if I knew the answer to that…
Yes, we Canadians do have a tendency to carry on extended conversations with complete strangers. It’s a national idiosyncrasy- along with our over-apologizing.
I wish I had an answer to your question. I’d very much rather that we were all able to be open and welcoming, but you’re right- it’s becoming an increasing rarity- even here.
I do envy that ability to just talk to strangers without any inhibitions…