Since I got home from Offshore, I’ve noticed a big difference in friendliness between strangers in North America and strangers in other countries. Perhaps those of you who have travelled outside the continent, especially to developing countries, can relate.
Here, people are strangers and are very content to remain that way. There is no eye contact as you walk down the street, no one smiles at anyone else, and they certainly do not say hello. Usually when someone does that it means that they want something: I am smiled at and greeted by the people who are asking for money or for me to support their cause (we have lots of that in Victoria). Smiling back only seems to encourage them and I’ve found myself cornered on occasion by people wanting money. So much for being friendly. There were a few people panhandling who I used to pass every day on the bank run when I worked downtown and we would smile in greeting and there were no expectations. That, however, seems to be unusual. Why is it that a smile often ends in guilt even though I may truly have no money to give right now (my wallet is empty…). I smile because I want to acknowledge their existence as a human being and I am unusual because of this.
Contrast that with a place like Fiji where everyone smiles all the time and says “Bula” (Fijian all-purpose greeting) constantly to everyone they pass on the street. People who are asking for money do so with no expectations and are cheerful about it, whether or not you have anything to give them. In many of these places, not smiling at people you meet in the street is a social faux pas – the complete opposite to here. There is really no such thing as a stranger in a place like this, only people you have not talked with yet. And there is no fear of saying hi to people you have never met. Great experiences are had as a result. There are many things we would not have done and many things we would not have experienced on Offshore were it not for the kindness of “strangers” we randomly met. Strangers who soon became friends.
And we call ourselves the “developed” world? It is unfortunate that people in developing countries want to gain a lifestyle like we have. They think that they will be happier. In truth, some of the happiest people I have met are those with nothing but what they need for today. Forget the need for a bigger house, a second car, a flashier TV or computer. That isn’t happiness and doesn’t bring happiness. Happiness is living today well and being living with what you have, even if it isn’t much. It is being with friends and family and not needing to one-up them in material goods or stories but enjoying their company. It is enjoying life. Just a thought.