Opinion

I say 'hello' when I walk into shops and smile at strangers. Yes, I know, I'm a monster

Everyday encounters are opportunities for shafts of light, not negativity  

Image: Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I am something terrifying to behold. Something that creates hastened heartbeats and a fight or flight response. I am the human thing that says a friendly hello when they enter shops and smiles at strangers. I am the monster that takes a gentle hammer to contemporary solipsism.  

You’re probably one of those people too. After all, there is a high probability that you are someone who had a conversation with your Big Issue seller this morning.  

You might have curtailed the conversation because you were worried about getting in the way of more sales or you were on your way to a meeting or you saw the seller had a story or thought that has just been waiting for someone with a little time and an open ear.  

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It may sound childish, but I think friendliness is a weapon. Spending my life traveling from town to town, often my only conversations beyond my shows are with those I am buying coffee or books from. They might have had a day of people being abrupt to them and I may have had a series of points failures between Leicester and Nuneaton. This is an opportunity for a shaft of light.  

My habit of being upbeat and friendly when walking into shops and restaurants or pretty much anywhere, came from a trip to the US in my late teens. I experienced all the cliches from the relentless have-a-nice-days to the oft given compliment, “by the way, I love your accent”.  

Returning to Heathrow from Tucson, Arizona, I was first of all cowed by the immersive greyness of the sky and then the greyness of the first person I spoke to, who was a vacuum of have-a-nice-dayness.  

He looked as if he ever experienced a nice day it would be like Van Helsing exposing Dracula to the sun; recoiling, hissing before turning to skeletal ash. It was this brief interaction that made me resolve to try and be as nice as pie when entering a pie shop or any other establishment. The only thing that would get in my way was my concealed anxiety, but when I could cage that, I tried to beam without appearing to be a murderous threat.  

In the last few years, I detect that people have become more standoffish, more sealed in their own world, anything that is not within their phone or their social circle is a nuisance to be tutted towards, sneered at, or entirely ignored even if it is standing right in front of you. Detachment can be fertile ground to grow tribalism and biases.  

Much of our mass media thrives on telling you that you are surrounded by threats. This seems to have become even more forthright since the EU referendum. It is not a surprise that sociopathy is becoming contagious.  

Muhammad Ali said that he always took note of how people treated waiters, because he knew that with just a few changes in his life, he could be the one serving the soup. How we treat people with less power than us says a great deal about us (though always remember that some people always have the power to piss in your soup or put the breadsticks up a dog’s arse).  

We have to rise above the idea that money and power deserve special treatment.  

I was eavesdropping on a gin-dampened man the other day who was declaring his superiority on the late train home. He insisted that people needed to earn his respect. That is back to front. Respect is something that should not need to be earned but which can, instead, be lost. 

Each person deserves the same amount of respect as they enter a room. No one deserves instant deference over others, even if they have a crown and an ermine collar.

And whenever you can, tip your waiter 20%. They might be a boxer in training to take on the world and if not, they are trying as hard as they can to get by.

Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and broadcaster.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

His book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £10.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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