June 28, 2010

Small Talk in a Small Town

So I was in Ottawa last week for work. I was craving the big city in a big way. The concrete, the excitement, the diversity, the shopping...I have certainly missed that after moving to a smaller town. After work, I walked through the market, stopped at all the boutique shops, made idle chit chat with a few shop owners...I was starting to think I would be happier living in a town like this.

It wasn't long and I started noticing that no one said hello. No one looked at me. No one acknowledged my existence even when I said hello or smiled at them.  After a day of this, I was ready to take one of those big city people and shake them awake. I mentioned this to my big city colleague at one point during the second day and he suggested I visit Montreal if I want to see unfriendly. By the second evening, I was yearning for the healthy social awareness and connection I felt in my small town.

Yesterday, I went cycling in the woods and was delighted to be greeted by everyone I passed. I didn't have to initiate a "hello" or a smile...everyone smiled and said "hello".  It felt great. I felt connected and knew that I would much prefer the social connection than the excitement the bigger city offers.  

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, talks about a tipping point when the feel of a small town changes as the population increases. Once reaching a particular number, the connection between people begins to fade. From small business to large or small town to big city, the social effects have been noted in the literature and can have a negative impact on health.

Social connection, as Dean Ornish notes in his book, Love and Survival, is an import key to good health. Those living in isolation report a higher level of illness due to a weakened immune system.  I have always been a firm believer in the power of "hello" and there is no doubt that the research backs me up on this. Why do we still continue to ignore the person passing on the sidewalk? Fear? Self absorption? Would it even make a difference? I will end with a story that made such a difference to me, I have been making it my mission to say "Hi" to strangers ever since.

David was walking home from school one day and noticed a kid across the street.  Allan was holding every text book he owned and struggling with his load until it all tumbled on the sidewalk.  David crossed the street to help Allan with his books and introduced himself.  From that time on Allan and David were best friends. By graduation, Allan was nominated as Valedictorian and got up to make his speech.  He told the story of the day he met his best friend, David.  "That day", Allan said, "I had planned to kill myself out of unbearable loneliness, so I emptied my locker and took all my books home."  Allan continued by saying that it was because of David's kindness and friendship that he changed his mind.

Do not underestimate the power and influence of a "hello". You may be making someones day just by acknowledging their presence. If you do not want to live in a society that can't even give eye contact, be the change you wish to see in your community!  Say "hi" once in a while. You will feel better for it.

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