Simply acknowledging people makes a better world

Living and working in the downtown core of Duncan, the atmosphere is as metropolitan as you can get in a historically caulk- and gumboot town.

The streets can be populous. When stepping outside and strolling down the sidewalk you are sure to pass people along the way.

Even if you were born and raised in Cowichan, with a changing population and a diverse crowd of tourists, you are bound to run into people you don’t know or recognize.

During the day on these streets in our busy town, it is rare for a person to be alone.

Yet there are times when passing by other passers-by, you wouldn’t know it. Sometimes it’s even possible for folks to feel invisible.

The act of acknowledging strangers passed on the street is hit-and-miss.  It’s hard to predict whether a person who is approaching will smile or look away.

It seems like such a simple thing to make eye contact, or smile and nod to the people we pass, yet many times this basic interaction doesn’t happen. And the lack of these simple exchanges can have lasting effects on the health of our community.

According to a study measuring how people feel when they are acknowledged published last year by Perdue University psychology professor Eric D. Wesselmann, “because social connections are fundamental to survival, researchers argue that humans evolved systems to detect the slightest cues of inclusion or exclusion.

“For example, simple eye contact is sufficient to convey inclusion. In contrast, withholding eye contact can signal exclusion.”

Wesselmann goes on further to suggest that if a stranger looks at another person without making contact,  “the latter feels invisible.”

As we all know, visibility and accountability go hand-in-hand, and accountability is a major piece of each individual’s contract with one another in the broader context of society.

When people don’t believe they are seen, or cared about, or that anyone is watching, there is more likelihood that their decisions will be made to benefit themselves in the moment rather than the greater community.

And some of those decisions can be detrimental. I see it all the time with recycling. In places where the recycling drop spot is communal, there tends to be a greater chance that garbage will be mixed in. The accountability to follow the rules is lost in crowd.

Greeting people you meet on the street isn’t only about policing, though — the benefits are further reaching than that.

By simply acknowledging another person’s presence, on a street or a path or in a park, there is more than an understanding neither party is alone; there is the creation of a rudimentary shared experience. And sometimes that simple formation of familiarity is enough to make a difference.

One of the common symptoms of depression is isolation. The feeling of aloneness leads to actions that perpetuate the social separation.

While a hello from a stranger can’t be expected to be a magical mental health remedy, it can at least provide evidence contrary to the personal narrative being told by someone who is feeling down.

Now, I’ll admit saying hello might not always be possible — sheer volume of people in a crowd could prevent this. On Cowichan’s Friendship Trail, it’s probably doable. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge? Fuhgeddaboudit. And of course everyone has the right to wish for anonymity and to be lost in thought.

But everyone who lives in this community has this community in common, and is to some degree sharing the same experience.

And everyone can benefit from a friendlier, more inclusive atmosphere. A smile and nod cost nothing, but the payoff can be great..

Aaron Bichard writes for newspapers and recycles them. Connect with him at cowichanrecyclists@gmail.com.

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