I love where I live. It was a big change moving to a village from living in the centre of a major city. I was lucky, though and didn’t suffer the culture shock that many city dwellers do (What? You don’t have a persian deli? Where can I get some Tabrizi bread?) I had been raised in village and it felt like moving home. The one thing I had forgotten, though, was that nearly everybody you meet says hello. Now, I know there are villages where people don’t say hello, villages where two types of people live: locals and soon-to-move-out outsiders. Our village isn’t like that. Even on the damp freezing day of our first visit, strangers said hello to my wife and I as they walked by. We fell in love immediately.
Of course, the hello ritual has its pitfalls. For a start, you need to know the time. I don’t know how many times I’ve said “Good Morning” to somebody, only to curse myself as soon as the words are out of my mouth because it’s past noon. You can see it written all over their faces.” Good morning? Can’t he see the position of the sun?” The shame can be unbearable.
There is also the issue of not knowing a person’s name. I’m terrible with names. Another reason I fell in love with the village was that the first three people I got to know were called Steve. It was bliss. Then I met a Dave and a Lee and the whole thing fell apart. Don’t even get me started on Dan. There are people in the village with whom I’ve had long, frequent conversations and I still can’t remember their name. It’s nothing personal, the name just fails to sink in. Yet when I see them out and they say “Hello Dylan,” I squirm with embarrassment, groping around in my memory looking for any sort of prompt that could help me greet them by name in return.
But even in a village as friendly as ours, there are people who don’t say hello. I tend to break them down into four main groups:
- The preoccupied – by far the most common group. They are not snubbing you, they are concentrating on something else, like chasing after their child who happens to be skipping towards an onrushing combine harvester. Nine times out of ten the preoccupied will say hello, just not today.
- The shy – always a good group to say hello to. It’s not often you can get a physical reaction from somebody by saying one word to them (swear words not included.)
- People who don’t know you – this group really have no excuse. You may not have seen me before but that’s no excuse for not returning a hello. There are people in the village who have never said anything but hello to me, or I to them, in over two years, yet we feel as if we know each other. Shame on you.
- Then there is my favourite group – The Antisocial. These are people who know about the hello social convention but choose not to play. Everybody knows them. If you live in my village I bet you know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, then you’re probably one of them. They are the type of person who sees you walking towards them, smile on face, mouth opening to speak, and their eyes slip to the side, or down; anywhere but where you are standing. It’s an effect Harry Potter would be familiar with when he wore his invisibility cloak. Then, head bowed, the antisocial person rushes past, desperate to be away in case your show of neighbourliness brings them out in hives.
The thing is, most ‘helloers,’ as I like to call us, ignore the antisocial. They believe that if a person doesn’t want to say hello then that’s their prerogative. I’m a little different. I’m more of an evangelical helloer. I want to bring them to the light. Rather than ignore these people I try to convert them, deliberately targeting the antisocial until I get a greeting in return. I see it as my calling.
Now you have to be careful. Being an evangelical helloer can be quite risky. A balance needs to be made. Saying hello too loud and you come across as arrogant, even slightly deranged. Being too soft and you will end up ignored. It’s important to maintain eye contact and a smile at all times; it doesn’t feel neighbourly to have ‘hello’ bellowed in your face by an angry looking loon. You also need to choose your targets carefully. As a middle aged man, I wouldn’t recommend trying to get a hello out of teenage girls; the following police interviews can be uncomfortable.
Occasionally, though, something happens that makes the whole thing worthwhile. There was an old lady who I used to meet every morning on the school run. Now old ladies are the founders of the helloer movement; they are the helloer fundamentalists. Old ladies greet everybody they meet as if they were long lost family, with a beaming smile accentuated by their paper soft cheeks. However, this old lady was different. While most old ladies break out into a smile as easy as breathing, this old lady was of a type more likely to offer you a poisoned apple. Here was a worthy challenge. Every day I would pass this old lady and every day she would ignore my greeting.
Every day, five times a week, for over a year.
I was getting close to giving up until one day as I was returning from the school run with my two boys, I pushed our pushchair through the biggest pile of dog shit you could imagine. As I stood there swearing about thoughtless dog owners, the old lady approached with a big smile lighting up her face. “Good afternoon dear,” she said, laughter in her voice. That day I was on the side of the antisocial.