Meet and greet
Have you noticed how much people vary in how they respond to a chance encounter? I’m talking about when you pass someone in the street, or sit next to a stranger in a waiting room, or when you are next in the queue for the checkout. Do you pointedly ignore each other, or is there a smile, a nod of acknowledgement of the other person’s existence, and perhaps a brief ‘hi’ or ‘hallo’? Now of course there are many factors in all of this, but broadly speaking (nothing like a good generalisation or even some stereotyping), there would be appear to be significant cultural variations.
My son did a modern languages degree, which involved spending a year in the countries whose languages he was studying. For the French part he chose Paris, and for the Spanish module he went to live in Buenos Aires. In the former, however hard he tried, he did not make a single French friend, while in Argentina he formed bonds that ran deep, that all came from chance eencounters. So here we have two classic cultural stereotypes – the frosty French and the amiable Argentinians.
But what about the benign Brits? Well as a Londoner I am used to going about my business and behaving as if I am the only person on the pavement/tube/waiting to pay for my petrol. Step outside the city and this all changes; people smile as you pass by, and if it’s before midday, then you’re very likely to get a ‘Good morning’. So I started wondering which country offered the friendliest of options when it came to brief encounters, and yes, there are worlds of differences.
From personal experience, whenever I am in Spain I invariably find people instantly acknowledge my presence. We once had to take a junior member of the family to A&E in a northern Spanish town. As each new set of people entered the waiting room, they greeted the incumbents with a nod and an ‘Ola’. That never happened to me on any of the numerous occasions that I sat in the waiting room of a large south London teaching hospital with a sick or broken child on my lap.
On my numerous visits to Russia I learned quickly that you never look someone in the eye or greet them in the street. If you do they will assume you are either mad or about to inform on them. I was in a department store in Moscow and the sales assistant complimented me on my Russian, and then explained ‘But I know you’re not one of us, you smile too much’.
Then there’s India, a country where I have spent some time. There I can feel glad to be alive as I stroll down the street. Somehow people there can always find the time to acknowledge you, and not just because you are clearly a foreigner. You get the feeling that they don’t consider themselves too important to be bothering with the likes of this unknown person.
It’s been a while since I spent any time in the US, but I did travel across the country in my student years, and my overriding experience was of encountering friendly, engaging people who were happy to greet a passing stranger. A friend of mine had an even more positive experience; she was in a restaurant in New York and the people at the adjacent table struck up a conversation. This led to a friendship which lasts to the present day.
I can’t quite see that happening to me next time I’m in Pizza Express…