Saturday, February 23, 2013

And Good Morning to You, Too!

We are almost four weeks into our temporary time ashore, and what, you may ask, are our cultural sticking points?  Is it that we haven't heard of a single film/singer/celebrity which has cropped up in the past two years?  Are the girls ridiculed for not owning an iPad?  Do we feel strange about our (often-commented-on) Canadian accents? 

No.  Our biggest problem is, "good morning."  More accurately, the lack thereof.

Years ago, Erik worked in Switzerland.  I went to visit him one summer, and, among the cultural instruction he gave me regarding the language ("you won't understand it,") and transportation ("learn to ride a bicycle without killing anyone,") he included the command: "You must say hello to people as you pass them on the street."

"What do you mean?" I asked.  "Who do I have to say hi to?"
"Everybody."  This was delivered in an emphatic tone along with an I-need-you-to-internalize-this-or-I'll-have-to-get-a-new-job-elsewhere look.
"Okay," I said.
"Good," said Erik.  "Now.  If you meet one person, you say grüezi."
I have yet to meet a more difficult combination of sounds in any language.  "Grüezi," I tried.  We practiced.
"If it's more than one person, you say, grüezi mitenand."
"Grüezi mitenand," I repeated.
"Unless it is a younger person, in which case it's hoi."
I slumped.  "Well, what if it's an old lady with a teenager?  Erik, is this really...?"
"You have to do this," he said.  "It is really, really important."

For someone who grew up in urban North America, this was anathema to me.  City-dwellers operate under strong social conditioning to ignore other people on the streets.  I suppose it is a reaction to over-crowding, to pretend those strangers aren't really there, constantly pushing through your personal space.  I'm not an extrovert at the best of times, and intentionally speaking to total strangers felt like flashing them: very personal and very unwanted.

The first day I went out, I felt ridiculous.  I was sure that I would proffer my grüezi/grüezi mitenand/hoi and receive only dead air in response.  I was going to be Crocodile Dundee on the streets of New York.  Or, worse, someone would take it as an invitation to talk to me, and my complete lack of Swiss German would become embarrassingly clear.

Of course, it didn't turn out that way at all.  Everyone was perfectly nice, and the greeting formula was perfectly normal, and I got used to it.  I soon greeted a band of regulars at the old folks' home down the street every morning, and somehow the day started off right.

Back home again, it took me a little time not to feel snubbed when I saw only blank, closed faces on my daily walk.  But the conditioning kicked in again, and I forgot about it.

When we reached Australia, our girls had more than two years of Central America and French Polynesia under their belts.  Stylish is naturally friendly, and Indy has been aboard since she could form simple sentences.  So, of course, they said hello to everyone.

Who wouldn't say hello to these kids?
And they get nothing in return.

The first time this happened, I tried to explain how it just isn't normal to greet strangers in the city.  They both frowned, and, the more I tried to clarify the point, the more foolish I felt.  Was it really such an imposition to give a child a smile and a nod?  Did it make any sense to shy like a startled horse when a eight-year-old wished you good morning?  I thought back to my grüezi days when I cheerfully bellowed a greeting to my almost-deaf friends-I'd-never-met at the rest home.

"It's ridiculous," I said finally, "and it's too bad.  But I don't want you to feel bad because people won't say hello back to you.  It's their problem, not yours."

They still try it.  And sometimes they can surprise a hello out of someone.  The maintenance staff at the local mall has proven particularly friendly.  I just hope the First World doesn't leech that natural friendliness out of them.  Everyone could use a grüezi to start the day off right.


Kate said...

GOOD MORNING!! Beth and I send a hello from Canada.

In the subway in Toronto you quickly learn not to be friendly. It's worse than the street.

Indy and Stylish will make many friends with their hellos, but it may take time...

Anonymous said...

Good Morning & big hugs to everyone. I like to good morning/good day to all & sundry myself. It makes the world a better place.

Keep up the sunshine.
Love Grannie