Sometimes a Hello is just a Hello

23 Mar 2006

Have you ever been walking down a hall by yourself at work, or maybe school and seen a black person walking towards you? You keep walking, then direct your eyes at the person coming towards you. But you notice that they don’t do the same. They try to ignore you by looking at the floor or to the opposite side to you. All you want to do is say ‘Hello’ to this person. Nothing more. But you need at least some eye contact to be able to direct it to them. Looking for the slightest hint of acknowledgement, you keep glancing at them almost looking like a crazy person as you patiently wait, hoping to see their eyes look your way.

Before you even know it, the person has passed you by, without a second thought and there you are walking in amazement at the fact that they completely ignored you.

I get myself into this exact situation on a daily basis as I try to understand what happened to people saying ‘Hi’ to each other.

I believe that saying hello is vital to the survival of human communication. But I feel as though this is sorely lacking. I like to say ‘Hello’ to people to actually acknowledge others’ existence. But it seems they don’t want to acknowledge mine.

I was new on the job last year, so for the first few days, I decided to say ‘Hello’ to as many people as possible. I was actually surprised by my findings.  Some people acknowledged me with a ‘Hello’ and continued on with their business. A few said ‘Hi, how are you?’ and really didn’t wait for my response, almost as though they really didn’t care; it was just a force of habit. Others said ‘Hi’ under their breath, not actually looking at me, as though as long as they reply, that’s Ok. And surprisingly, many either wouldn’t look my way or would simply ignore me.

My mother and brother always used to tell me that back when they lived in England , there were so few black people around. So anytime a black person saw another black person, they would always say ‘Hello’. Many of these people emigrated from the West Indies and they all had the same goals of working hard for their money, in a society that wasn’t quite accepting of them. Especially with people like the skinheads who my brother said would always try to create some conflict. Acknowledging each other always made my family feel that they had other people who knew what it was like to be a minority.  Instead of ignoring each other, back then, black people embraced one another and eventually, my mother says, she ended up knowing most of the black families that lived in her city. My brother still remembers going to parties back then in which all the black youth from around the city would come and everyone in the room knew each other. I’ve even heard reggae sound clashes he has on tape in which the DJ would mention people’s names as they entered the party. This allowed people with the same background to be able to come together and mingle and sometimes even meet a future wife like my brother did.

So carrying on in that mind frame, I thought I would say ‘Hello’ to black people since in Canada , we are a minority and I think acknowledging each other would be nice.

I notice that many older black people I run into on a daily basis are the first to say ‘Hi’ to me. As a young person, I also try to say ‘Hello’ to other young people and that always seems to be a major problem. When I say ‘Hi’ to guys, they return with an under their breath ‘hello’ or I get the face with an expression that says: “why is that guy saying hi to me?” And on rare occasions, I get “the head-nod”. A Toronto blogger named Jdid explains the meaning of this head-nod in a blog entitled “Invisible Man”:

“You know the head nod one black person gave another black person who he/she didn''t know as they passed on the street,” he writes. “It happened rather frequently back then. It wasn''t a verbal means of communication, but its meaning was profound. A sort of knowing nod like ''yes brother I see you and you are not invisible to me'' or ''a keep your head up, son''. It was the black fist, good morning, ''my yout wha ya a say'', a pound, a hug and a handshake all rolled up in one and it made me realize back then that despite everything I was not alone in this city.”

These days, I’ve even noticed that some slight tension between young men when one looks at another too long. They think you’re giving them a bad look. They think you want to start something. But all I want to do is say ‘Hello’ and move on. I understand everyone is on edge because of the recent gun violence and we don’t know who may be carrying a weapon. But just an acknowledgment of one another can’t hurt. In fact, I think it would unite us black men because we need mutual respect for one another first, to be able to put away our differences, come together and try to tackle the problems that are plaguing our community. Let us at least give each other a head nod if nothing else to acknowledge that we exist and there is a hope for us all to work together.

As for the ladies, overall, I get a slightly better response. But for the most part, they usually don’t look in my direction and I have to go out of my way to say hello and most times, they don’t respond. I understand. Women must be safe and cautious of whom they are talking to. But as a regular nice guy, sometimes a Hello is just a Hello.

My hope is that one day soon I’ll be able to walk around the Greater Toronto Area and have that same experience that my family had in the past. How are we expected to meet new people if we cannot even say ‘Hello’ to each other? I put this out to everyone: make a conscious effort to say ‘Hi’ to your fellow black people. Even engage in some harmless conversation. With so few of us around, maybe we can create that community where we respect and communicate with each other and not always end up pointing the finger and blaming each other for our problems.  We need to at least be able to say ‘Hi’ to one another before we can even try to solve these problems that are plaguing our community.  I believe that it is possible and I am prepared to stand with anyone who wants the same thing for our community.