People Are More Scared Of You (2006)
There’s a lot of things I like about old people. Their cardigans and slacks fashion sensibility. Their passion for storytelling. Their lo-fi attempts to understand popular culture. Their predisposition to whistle in public places. And, probably most of all, their generally friendly nature. We’ve all had the experience of being zonked out on public transport, only to have a raspy voice waddle into our thoughts, with a non sequitur about the weather, or the ‘nice bag you’ve got there.’ Sure, to many the elderly are to be seen and not heard, and sometimes not even seen – but to me, these mini-scapes of social interaction take me back to the golden dust of yesteryear that my Nan and Pop are made from. These were hard working, potato eating, sun drenched simpler times, when a tip of the hat and a ‘good day’ to a passer-by on the street were commonplace. Despite your political stance on social conventions, you have to admit, it just seems like good manners.
These days, however, it’s just all a bit too hard. ‘Hello’ has been infected by the introverted fear virus of the communication age. Suddenly, ‘hello’ is a loaded question – a potential weapon – an accusation – a sleazy ghost haunting your personal space. I’m endlessly fascinated by the concept of saying hello to strangers. The fact I feel like I’m one of the daily greeting’s potential ambassadors, yet I can barely let the words escape my toast crumb dotted lips, provides an intriguing paradox.
I used to test the theory when I first arrived to study at the University of Canberra. Strolling up the path from Ressies to campus, I was presented with a steady stream of sullen student traffic. Nine times out of ten people were Eyes Down! playing footpath bingo. I’ve always been a gawker, and find entertainment in staring people in the face and letting subconscious fireworks of judgement explode in my imagination. Occasionally, the whites of our eyes would collide like comets, and I’d feel an urge to break the tension with a fancy free ‘G’day.’ But years of shyness would over-ride, I’d lower my gaze like a guilty toddler, and let the aborted greeting grumble into my closed mouth like a burp with amnesia.
Sometimes, I was taken off guard by the casual lope of a sports studies student, in wrap arounds and terry towelling hat. ‘Hey mate,’ he’d say without irony – and I’d find myself so out of practice of replying, that it wasn’t until I was already past him that I’d eventually let out half a crappy ‘hey.’
”Oh no, now he’ll think I snobbed him!” I’d think, and inevitably, his action of friendliness would end up making me feel worse, and I’d vow never to let it happen to anyone else.
Sure, when I go back to my hometown Burnie, or a similar country area, and find myself on a suburban backstreet, the ‘hello’ can happen, and seems obligatory and natural. Fair point, in the city, you can’t just be saying hello to everyone you see or it’d become a full-time job, and you’d end up with everyone giving you a dollar and running away. And so we continue to avoid eye contact and bunker down like battery hens, trapped in the cages of our own consciousness, farming ourselves for achievement – fearing interruption from the outside world, even if it is a sweet faced old lady who’s actually asking for help to get her frame on the bus.
Perhaps I’ll start marketing my range of ‘Hello!’ Tshirts – they start whistling whenever anyone’s in earshot.