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Personal Musings

The Kindness of Strangers: How a simple greeting can brighten someone’s day

After I drop off my daughter at school in the morning, I make my way out of the car line to the stop sign, and am waved on by the school’s crossing guard.

Every morning, without fail, the crossing guard smiles, waves, and says, “Have a good morning.” As simple a gesture as this is, I have found it to be one of the highlights of my day. Her smile is genuine as is her greeting. And it’s how I start each morning, Monday through Friday.

I don’t know her name and she doesn’t know mine. The only thing I know about her is she is the school crossing guard. She doesn’t know anything about me other than I’m a parent of a student at the school.

But it got me thinking about the kindness of strangers. When I go for a run each day, one of the best parts — apart from the natural stress reduction and physical health benefits running provides — is the non-verbal connection with other runners via the “runner wave,” as I like to call it. The runner wave isn’t a full on hand wave but a quick hello with the hand as you pass a runner headed in the opposite direction. If we’re within 15-20 feet of each other, I add in a “morning” or “afternoon” depending on the time of day.

For me, it’s almost a tethered connection, albeit invisible, taking place between two beings out there on the trail — an unspoken bond, a mutual indication of “hey, I see you out here doing your thing, keep it up.”

Not everyone waves back and that’s okay. It used to bug me a little, but then I read this article which gave me a different perspective.1

A stranger can become a friend

There’s a retired Fire Marshall a few houses up from me. He’s a good guy. He was once more or less a stranger for the first year we lived in our house and has since become a friend. We speak every time we see each other. Growing up where I did in rural Virginia, saying hello to your neighbors was just something you did. It becomes instinctual from a young age.

Every time I saw the Fire Marshall in his old Tahoe driving down the street, I’d wave. For the longest time, he didn’t wave back. Then one day he did. From there came a few words. Now whenever we see each other, we strike up a conversation. It wasn’t until April 2021 that I knew his first name. I had always referred to him as the Fire Marshall or Mr. W–.

My cousin Gary had died a few days before. I was returning from a run and Mr. W– was in his driveway washing his car. I jokingly said, “Hit me with that water hose.” I was drenched in sweat, red faced, and tired. He obliged. We ended up talking for about five minutes. At the end of the conversation, he said:

“I’m Gary by the way.”

“Jeff,” I replied.

We’d lived near each other for more than ten years and it was only then we learned each other’s first names.

“His name’s Gary,” I said to my wife when I returned home.

Back when I was a student at the University of Virginia, there were two girls that lived in the apartment next to me on campus. They were my neighbors and being neighborly I’d always speak. If I saw them on grounds, I’d say hello. One of the girls — who used to look at me like I had my head screwed on backwards the first month or so when I did this — asked me one day, as we were both putting the keys in our apartment doors at the same time, why I waved and spoke to her.

The question caught me off guard.

“Just something I’ve always done I guess. It’s what you do back where I grew up,” I said. “How come you don’t wave back?”

“Where I’m from, if you don’t know the person, no eye contact. No speaking. You go about your business and keep it moving.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Baltimore. Inner city.”

“The Wire, I love that show” was the first thought that popped into my head. She laughed. “How inaccurate is it portrayed?” I asked.

“Not too far from reality, actually. Everything you see is Baltimore. I’ve never seen Omar whistling down the street but there are people like Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell.”

From that point on, whenever we crossed paths, I’d wave or speak and she’d return the gesture. One day about three months into the semester, I went down to the dining hall to grab dinner. I held the door open for her as she went in.

“They hold doors where you’re from too?” she asked.

“Yes,” I laughed. “But I’ve come to realize that no one here, and I mean no one, says, ‘thank you.’ They just walk on in.”

“Girls think you’re hitting on them is why,” she said.

“Trust me, I am definitely not hitting on some of these people. It just seems rude to let the door shut in their face.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Don’t let negativity push out kindness

At the end of a long day, it’s commonplace for us all to revisit a negative moment or interaction that took place over the preceding 8-12 hours. There’s a phrase for this: negativity bias. Negativity bias means that our negative interactions outweigh our positive experiences. There’s an evolutionary purpose for this feeling and if we still lived in a land filled with saber toothed tigers, it would make a lot more sense. We don’t have saber toothed tigers to worry about so we harp on erratic drivers who almost ran us off the road, gossipy neighbors who denigrate our children (for what, who knows), overbearing or rude co-workers, and the like.

And even if we didn’t have a negative moment in our day, when we talk about or reflect on our highlights, it’s easy to forget those small acts of kindness sprinkled throughout our waking hours.

The kindness of strangers can have a profound impact on our daily lives. It’s often the small, seemingly insignificant gestures that can make a big difference in our mood, attitude, and overall well-being.

Just like the example of the school crossing guard, a simple smile or greeting can set the tone for the rest of the day. It reminds us that there is good in the world all around us and that we are not alone in our struggles in this vast universe we call home. We are sometimes the lion and sometimes the mouse.2 We are all interconnected, regardless of whether we know each other’s names or backgrounds — and because of this we all have the capacity to be kind and compassionate to one another.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash