When I moved to suburban Houston last summer, the cynicism and grumpiness I had nurtured during five years working in London was hidden behind a thin veneer of standoffishness. I was accustomed to putting my head down, ignoring strangers and only indulging in conversation with service industry employees when it would facilitate me leaving the premises more quickly. So it was alarming when people I didn’t know said “hi” as I strided past them, eyes ahead. And those service industry employees were, in a surprising number of cases, happily concerned for my welfare (“Did you find everything you needed today?”, “What can I help you with today?”) rather than assisting my quest to escape by being sullenly efficient. It only took me a few days to realise that while life in London was simpler if you pretended everyone but your friends were merely in your way, things would run smoother in Clear Lake if I played the game. A few weeks later and it felt natural to be nodding my head, raising my eyebrows and mumbling “hi” to every passerby, greeting college staff and supermarket checkout folk with a smile and, at the very least, more “hi”s.
I didn’t realise how deep rooted this behaviour had become until I arrived back in London a week ago. I don’t expect the city to be full of people greeting every stranger they pass; the place would grind to a grinning, nodding halt pretty swiftly. But as I walk to the inner-suburban tube station every morning I pass a handful of pedestrians who stare fixedly ahead without the slightest indication of wanting to greet this stranger on his way to work. This straight-faced blanking of all other humans is all the more noticeable to me as I’m so pleased to be back. I want to smile and nod to everyone, to acknowledge they exist at times other than when they’re walking too slowly, racing for a seat on the tube or elbowing past, tenner in hand, at a bar. I’ve been walking round grinnning inwardly at how exciting it is to be in a city full of bustling and varied people, wondering when the feeling will fade, when I’ll revert back to ignoring passersby and being happy that no one says “hi”.