One of the most prominent aspects of an Indian society is its lack of sociableness. Not that Indians aren’t approachable or jovial. On the contrary, Indians are some of the most hospitable folks in the world—but for someone travelling to India for the first time, our society throws more than a few culture shocks.
When walking on the streets, for instance, people never smile or acknowledge an unfamiliar face. They won’t maintain eye contact for more than three seconds, in fear of the other person misunderstanding. Most people I’ve come across on the streets, look straight ahead and then down as if focussed on avoiding potholes.
It’s not the fear of conflict that makes people avoid expressing themselves. Instead, it’s a habit that stems from childhood, when we learn to avoid speaking to strangers and accepting candy from them. We grow up with the same stigma, so much so that we don’t differentiate potential threats from unassuming people trying to be pleasant.
Most people you’d come across on the streets don’t see the point of smiling at someone they’ve never met before and will never again. When it makes no sense to grin at a wall, why should it make sense to grin at someone who’s as insignificant in their life as that wall?
That’s the reasoning I dabbled in for over twenty years before I landed in the United States. Where tables turned.
I walked into a restaurant, and the staff welcomed me with a gigantic smile and wide open arms. It was the first time we’d met and without a second thought, she made me feel as if I’d known her all my life. I didn’t even ask for her name, but we’re friends by recognition.
It’s her job to be social, a little voice in my head nagged. Not everyone would be the same.
Jet-lagged one morning, I awoke early for a walk around the neighbourhood I stayed at. It was a cold September morning and artificial pumpkins hung from behind locked stores. A single person lumbered on in the distance. When I got closer, I realised he was the garbage collector reporting on time for his duty. He smiled and waved at me for no reason. Without even knowing it, I was reciprocating his gestures. I didn’t think, and I didn’t debate with myself as to why I should wave. It was just nice, two people from such different backgrounds, with nothing in common, sharing a moment of warmth, each wrapped up in their own jackets trying to stay warm.
It’s not his job to be social, I realised. It wouldn’t have offended me at all if he’d had ignored me altogether. I would’ve gone my way and he would have gone his, both of us bracing the cold. Instead, we did go our own ways but with a cheery stride. And that made all the difference.
Later as I sat in the shuttle, a complimentary service my hotel offered, my driver—an employee of the hotel—asked me how I was. She didn’t have to. It was a ten-minute ride from my hotel to my workplace, but she took that time to share a conversation. We didn’t discuss global economy, but we did talk about how difficult it is to find employment nowadays. I left the shuttle a little wiser to the reality of the world, and I felt myself balloon with compassion and sincere respect for my driver. We weren’t venting to a stranger, but instead, we were riders in the same boat, sharing observations.
Throughout my stay in the US, I met with countless people who volunteered to make my day better. With a smile, a wave, a head bob, and even a small nod in the right direction, strangers all around me made me feel at home.
Perhaps it’s all because I was a tourist, my skeptical inner voice piped. No, I answered as I explored the streets further. More about that later.