Sunday, July 2, 2017

The importance of hello

Our friends and neighbours at Vesuvius Beach on Saltspring Island. A new book by Yale professor Timothy Snyder says history shows one way to guard against tyranny is to reach out to people and make friends.
After we bought our cottage on Saltspring Island, I was surprised when John – as much a city person as me – started breaking city rules by issuing warm greetings to complete strangers. “Hello; how are you?” he’d ask when we encountered strollers on our neighbourhood beach. We met many of our beach friends that way – but it it took me awhile to get used to this new behaviour. Years of living in Vancouver had taught me the fine art of simply not seeing people.

According to a new book that’s turned into a New York Times best seller, John had the right idea. “Make eye contact and small talk,” is one of 20 lessons we should learn from the horrors of the twentieth century, writes historian Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny. It’s not just being polite; it’s a way of defending ourselves from the kind of tyrants who flourished in Nazi Germany and eastern Europe – and even now may be laying the groundwork for taking over in the United States.

 Snyder does not mention Donald Trump by name, but it is clear it is his rise to power that has prompted his warning. “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” he writes. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

As for acknowledging the people we meet, Snyder sees it as “part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society.” It’s also a way to stay in touch with our surroundings, break down social barriers, and figure out who to trust. “If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.”

When victims of repression write their memoirs, none forget how their  neighbours treated them, he says.  “A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting – banal gestures in a normal situation – took on great significance.” Similarly, gestures of rejection raised fear.  “You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States,” he writes. “But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.”

Our idyllic Saltspring beach seems a long way from the horrors of the twentieth century; but just in case, it certainly doesn't hurt to learn to say hello.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. There was a culture of greeting people in the Willow's Beach area in Victoria and we had to remember when we visited Vancouver not to do that because we got strange reactions. And a woman really needs to remember not to smile in a friendly way in Paris or she'll be followed relentlessly and offered champagne....