A Solution to a Canadian Crisis in Politeness

When I’m about to pass someone outside, I have only a moment to calculate what I should do.

Should I look at them and risk them looking away from my smile? Or should I look forward and pretend they’re not there?

When I was growing up in Calgary, you would always smile and say hello to people who were walking past you. They would always do the same back.

But when I moved to Kelowna, I found that people didn’t reciprocate. My hunch is that it’s because everyone’s cranky, and also because I am a male, brown, and no longer a cute child.

Here’s the worst case scenario. I look at someone. They look at me. I smile, nod my head, and/or say hello. They then IGNORE me and look away.

This usually happens, and it really bothers me. I don’t know why exactly, but failing to be acknowledged by your fellow citizen really makes one feel sad.

To avoid the worst case scenario some weeks ago, I decided to just no longer look at people anymore. I would pretend they weren’t there and continue jogging forward. This way, while I may miss out on a smile, I also save myself the pain of being ignored. Negative emotions weigh more than positive ones, so pain wins this one.

But now I think that this is wrong. We are in CANADA!

I’ve been to Italy and France, where people don’t lock eyes. I know that people pass other people without smiling or nodding heads there. I know what it’s like to know exactly what someone’s opinion of you is because politeness is not a thing there. There’s an honesty to it that I appreciate.

What I experience in Canada is different. It’s not honest. Here, it’s more like people are avoiding you – avoid talking, avoid recognizing, avoid noticing, avoid saying hello. And I think that this is ridiculous.

So what should I do and believe? Well, perhaps the people I pass don’t smile or nod because they stopped being acknowledged a long time ago and they too got singed. If this is the case, then I can singlehandedly change their behaviour by smiling and nodding at every single person I pass, even if I think they will ignore me. That’s because I’ll change their view of other people. I’ll show them that others do care. And that they won’t always be singed.

Or, perhaps they don’t smile or nod because I am a brown adult male. If this is the case, then I can still change their perspective by smiling and nodding at them all the same, even if they will grimace and look away from me. I bet that they’ll feel bad afterwards for ignoring me or for looking away. Reciprocity is a fundamental part of our human nature. Maybe then, they’ll take a chance and pass forward that simple nod of kindness to the next brown adult male they encounter.

Of course, if someone fails to do this, then I would be content to get offended and to label them as rude and un-Canadian (all in my head of course, but perhaps also in a not-so-inconspicuous facial expression). This would promote a certain type of nationalism, yes, but it would push forward the point that saying hello to your neighbours should be enjoyed and expected. As long as you’re on a Canadian sidewalk, this should be the norm. That’s what I think.

Plus, now with COVID-19 and our biological predisposition to treat everyone strange with hostility and fear, people are even less likely to say hello or at least smile or nod your head. So it’s even more important now to take that risk of kindness.

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