Call it a defining modern day paradox; research shows that something many people have in common is … feeling alone.
Last week, the World Health Organization designated loneliness a “global public health concern”, as damaging to wellbeing as a 15-a-day cigarette habit. Whether caused by technology, economic circumstance or other factors, this “silent epidemic” is said to affect one in four of us.
Now, the small city of Luleå in northern Sweden – a country of impeccably polite citizens, though not generally given to loquaciousness – has launched the Säg hej! (say hi!) campaign, with advertisements on buses and workshops in schools nudging residents into gentle bonding.
Åsa Koski, the municipality worker who came up with the idea, is adamant that even a simple hej from a stranger can make people “feel seen”.
But how would such behaviour go down on the ostensibly impersonal, bustling streets of central London?
It is an inauspicious start when, confidently striding by a group of gossiping teenagers near to St Pancras station and imparting a cheery “hiya!”, I’m met with a blend of recoil, pity and disgust. Next, a woman, mid-sandwich, virtually hisses on approach.
Thankfully, spirits are lifted by the dapper Simon Reichwald, sitting on a bench and scrolling on his phone in nearby Granary Square. When I pass and say an enthusiastic “hi!” , he looks up briefly and returns my greeting with a rather perplexed smile.
I circle back and explain about the Swedish initiative. “It’s undoubtedly a good thing,” he says. Simon works in social enterprise and is all about breaking down barriers. But to say hello, in this setting, to a stranger? “Unusual, is what I thought,” he admits. “But it would be a lovely thing if people did it more.” If it had not been for work emails, he says, he may have engaged further.
The wholesomeness continues with Alex, 23, a student, and his friend Neve, 25, who works in publishing. Despite my chipper hello interrupting their conversation in full-flow, the pair reciprocate with a tentative “hi”. Neve tells me her only concern was whether she had given me an “accidental dirty look” while squinting into the afternoon sun.
They are both pro-hello, although Alex points out the potential for misunderstandings. He would assume a random hello from a stranger meant “they think you’re someone else”. There are safety and personal space concerns, too. But neither of them consider it odd behaviour.
People outside of London, and in particular those in Neve’s native Northern Ireland, she says, are more likely to strike up an actual conversation. Alex offers me a crisp.
Outside the Lightroom exhibition space in Coal Drops Yard, Nikita, 24, an art worker, is admiring a photograph of the Apollo moon-landing. Taking one giant leap for mankind, I pass between her and the hoarding with an almost rapturous: “Hi there!”. She responds with a buoyant hello, then looks over her shoulder after I walk on. “I did wonder”, she says, “whether I was just in your way.”
Nikita, a native Londoner, describes herself as a trusting and open person, and backs the Swedes’ idea. “I once went to a Meetup event”, she tells me, referring to the social media site that arranges real life hangouts. It wasn’t that she was lonely, she says, but that “it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and try new things”.
To put it another way: it does, indeed, pay to säg hej.
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