OPINION: Greeting is a life skill

When my younger children were at preschool, a mom asked me why I let them greet everybody, a question which took me by surprise. I smiled at her and gently offered: "Greeting is a life skill." She rolled her eyes: "Hugely inappropriate if you ask me!" I hadn't asked her, my kids had just passed her, smiled and greeted, but... "with all the weirdos' in the world, I discourage my children from greeting anyone!" she concluded.

This only affirmed my judgement that greeting is a necessity, acknowledging people as they meet your eye, come into your space or look into your car at a robot. You see them and they see you. To me, greeting gives you the authority to set the tone of the conversation or the end of it.

Naturally we are not all at the top of our game every day. Even more reason to be polite. In the likely event that your mood or presence is not always consistent, showing an awareness of people around you makes it easier for them to support or think that maybe you are having a bad day. Life is not always a box of chocolates, sometimes it is a pin cushion. Be kind, be generous and be polite. Being rude, indifferent, impolite carries a high cost. We all experience life differently, what we communicate with our body language, the way we connect with other people, determines how they meet us and treat us.

I did a self-defence class where a group of convicted rapists were asked what they would do if their victims fought back? They won't, was the clear 99% of responses. An example used by one survivor was that she looked into the face of the man approaching her, smiled and greeted him. He was thrown and off his guard, she says it was her instinct to greet him and gave her time to make a run for it. Furthest from my mind is it to suggest that greeting could ward off a rapist, the survivor just demonstrated that in her circumstance the man was on the back foot having prepared to be unannounced.

There is an element of spontaneity about how we react to different people. This is informed by our real or perceived experience of them or people like them. Greeting someone sometimes opens an opportunity to engage with them in day-to-day conversation and sometimes a lens through which to look around in their world, their day, their experience.

The one thing that makes us all the same is that we all think we are different. Let's call it an equaliser. Hindsight being as perfect as it is, we can sometimes reflect on how and what the things were that attracted us to certain people. I am usually attracted to the introverts, the shy beings, the rude and edgy ones. They fascinate me, I see the barrier to entry and then I choose to see it as armour they are using to keep people out. Like a red flag to me. Some of my best friends were those ferocious leave-me-alone bulls. Greeting them in the face of no expression, sometimes multiple times, taught them how to treat me and with sufficient practice I got better at it.

It sounds easier than it is. My reality is that we all have a story. We are in different chapters, on different pages sometimes daily, sometimes within one day. Why can't I at the very least be caring and kind? We must meet people where they are at and we really should greet and acknowledge them. These are lessons one can never learn to soon and we can definitely never learn them too late.

I am still acquainted with the mom who thinks my children are being badly parented by being encouraged to greet people, especially strangers. My lessons include NOT getting into other people's cars, NOT accepting unwarranted gifts, NOT following them to see a puppy around the corner, NOT meeting in deserted corners with no way out, those standard lessons are an absolute not, no, never! Greeting? It costs nothing and in return can change how people view you, help you, accept you, work with you, play with you, think about and talk to you.

When we open ourselves to learning about other people, their experiences, their thoughts, their lives, we find the links that bind us as people. Different things may make us happy, sad, ecstatic, stressed or joyful, but the outcome is the same. If we are happy, then we are. Stress is stress irrespective of whether you are experiencing it from the driver's seat of a motor car or pushing a grocery trolley holding all your belongings, down a never-ending road. I am you and you are me.

Accepting life in a why not me attitude separates us into two groups. Why me? Or why not me? Our attitude determines how we address any situation, be it enormously gratifying or disastrously sad, it came to you, now deal with it! This applies to winning the British lottery or losing a limb in an accident.

Would it not be a simpler way to navigate life in a neighbourly fashion? To choose what happens to you and to plan your action in a thoughtful best outcome mode rather than a blaming, victim mentality?

It has been my experience that a large group of people need to navigate a way to be with each other. Our experiences influence our thoughts, but we choose how we feel. Greeting warmly opens us up to something, good or bad, we made the first move. Our lives are not entwined but our experiences may be. A starting point with a group is to check in. How are you feeling? How is your life? Anything we need to know.

I coach some groups of multidisciplinary students and am always fascinated that the more diverse they are, the more interesting it is finding out that we may have different names or traditions, but somewhere there is always a common golden thread to connect us to each other's past and future. We may come from different backgrounds but there are more links that connect us than there are chinks that separate us. The trick is to ignite a curiosity within a group to meet their peers.

We encourage our children to deliberately meet people. New children in the classroom, on the playground, make eye contact with and talk to the lady who sweeps the school corridors and always has a smile on her face or something comforting to say. Meet the angry snappy one who clicks her tongue as you have to walk over the wet floors to get to your classroom. Greet and meet people, everywhere. No matter whom they are, presidents or paupers, displaced or snobbish or angry, they are people first. Your assumptions about them, their weirdness, their unfriendliness has nothing to do with whether or not to greet.

Enquire about their wellbeing, strike up a conversation, remember what people tell you about their lives and follow up with them next time on how it went with the exam, job application or the house move. Make an effort.

This Heritage Day, a braai would be great and understanding different cultures and customs will be a stretch if you don't make an effort the rest of the year. Meeting new people and meeting people you think you already know is a great opportunity we should all embrace. Really meet them wherever you find yourself, the corner cafe, the parking area, the cashier, the doorman, the store manager, the green grocer, the child carers and other people's children.

Look for all the invisible people, see them and acknowledge them. Nope, I am not encouraging hugging all and sundry if you are uncomfortable, fist pumping your bosses may be inappropriate, shoulder stomping every guy you think is a dude, kissing the air or each other's cheeks unless it is your usual custom. My least favourite form of greeting must be kissing on the lips to say hello if we are not married or you are not one of my children! The only guarantee I can offer is we get more than we give if we can practice being pleasant, seeing other people and acknowledging them.

My eleven year old's words to most people he meets at school in the morning is: "How was your night, did you enjoy your sleep?" The facial expressions and responses from people are priceless. Try it.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn