Are You Alright?
23 January 2007

‘Are you alright?’ This, we have come to learn, is the usually accepted greeting in and around our new home town in South Leicestershire, UK. At first my wife and I wondered if we looked ill, or pale or tired. But no, nothing of that was implied. As the American poet Arthur Guiternan warned his fellow countrymen, ‘Don’t tell your friends about your indigestion, “How are you?” is a greeting, not a question.’

Greetings may seem small and insignificant, but they are a part of what holds and brings us together. They are usually the first thing you will want to learn if you are going to spend some time in another country or culture. In India it's ‘Namaste!’ with palms together; in Japan, ‘Ohayou gazaimas’ with a bow. ‘Khotso!’ (meaning ‘peace’ like the Hebrew ‘shalom’) was, I learned, the regular greeting in Lesotho. ‘Sut mae?’ they ask in Wales.

In his book, The Testimony of Hearts, David Nicholl points to stories of Jews in 1930s Germany no longer being greeted on the streets by people they knew. ‘It is precisely with such little acts of cowardice and hostility that all the terrible events of our terrible world begin – the lying, the torture, the killings,’ he writes. ‘Likewise the work of reconciliation begins with the act of greeting. Simply to greet another person, to recognise that person, is to partake of the sacrament of peace.’ Or as the Russian author Nikolai Fyodorov put it, ‘The restoration of kinship among mankind requires that those who generally do not speak to one another should begin to speak with one another.’

We get the newsletter of a community of religious sisters in the Wirral, not far from Liverpool. They don’t go out a great deal, but one of the sisters does the regular super-market shopping run. She recounted how, shortly after the London terrorist bombings, she had greeted a young Muslim woman across the check-out counter. It was a non-verbal, smiled greeting – but both knew there had been a genuine moment of communication between them. When we do not meet and do not greet, it is all too easy to harbour notions of each other that are often far removed from the fact. Myths, and the hostility that goes with them, build up. As Sister Anna of the Logan College, Belfast (which has students from both Catholic and Protestant communities) said, ‘People who do not meet imagine the worst.’

Of course a greeting is only the first step. But it is one that we often don’t take. The second step might be the more challenging one of beginning an ‘honest conversation’. Such conversations, conducted with sensitivity between groups who see things very differently and normally don’t meet, have been shown to have a transforming effect. ‘In a debate one side wins or loses, but both sides are the same as they were before,’ says Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sachs. ‘In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective.’

Most conversations and encounters start with a simple greeting. This can often be the sowing of a very small seed that leads on to much larger things. One piece of folk wisdom which I came across many years ago and which has always stayed with me, is this, ‘The friend is cheap gained who costs but a salutation.’ So go on, launch out and say it (if necessary, after taking a deep breath because you have not been introduced!) – ‘Hi there!


Giatas Giatas, 17 May 2007

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