• Saying 'hello' can help to build social scapes. (Blend Images/Getty)
This word can make us feel welcome, smash through social barriers and bring communities together (and no, it’s not ‘love’).
By
Shannon McKeogh

12 Sep 2017 - 1:11 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2017 - 1:11 PM

Saying ‘hello,’ seems like such a simple thing, but how often do we say it to our neighbours or strangers passing us by on the street?

If you answer ‘not often’, it might be because greeting a totally random person with a sincere ‘hello’ might create a sense of awkwardness, vulnerability or even stranger-related danger.

Due to the fear of the unknown, the positive benefits of saying hello are often overlooked by Australian adults, yet research shows this five-letter word can be quite powerful.

The positive benefits of saying hello are often overlooked by Australian adults, yet research shows this five-letter word can be quite powerful.

Safely saying hello to a stranger could bring communities together, pierce through the shadowy depths of loneliness and even save a life. 

We need to focus on creating beautiful 'socialscapes'

Community psychologist Peter Streker explains that there’s a very good reason saying hello is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years across cultures. It’s an act we use to build cultural bonds around us that are friendly and cooperative.

“It’s a relatively safe method of testing whether another person is a potential threat or not,” Streker tells SBS.

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But this greeting also adds to a thing called ‘social capital.’ It’s something we may take for granted until we feel the weight of loneliness when we’re in a new country or city, a place lacking in social capital. While we tend to focus on beautiful landscapes, creating beautiful ‘socialscapes’ is also of huge value to our lives.

There’s a very good reason saying hello is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years across cultures. It’s an act we use to build cultural bonds around us that are friendly and cooperative.

“Most people will understand how miserable it would be living in a place where you chronically felt lonely, couldn’t trust others or couldn’t depend on others for help if you were in trouble because they didn’t care about you,” Streker says.

The good news is most people contribute to a community’s social capital every day without realising it by doing small things like lining up in queues or allowing another car to pass through a narrow space before you.

The benefits of social capital however, go beyond mannerisms. Research from Stansfeld shows social capital can help moderate the effect of an adverse or stressful life event.  Other research suggests teenagers who feel part of a community are less likely to experience depressive symptoms.

There are some communities going beyond simple niceties to contribute to social capital.

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“It can completely change the view someone has on the world”

While some studies say that social media may be contributing to loneliness, the online world can also help people reconnect with their local community. 

Memberships manager and Wodonga resident, Tara Leach, found the constant negativity of the daily news overwhelming. Was life just doom and gloom? In respond to a community search for kindness and greater local bonds between strangers in 2015, she set up the local Facebook group, Albury-Wodonga Random Acts of Kindness.

“I thought maybe I can create a platform where people can share the kind things they have seen or had happened to them, and we can grow a community,” Leach tells SBS.

The group now has over 6,000 followers and locals frequently share their feel-good stories, which range from posties delivering groceries to people paying for another person’s drive-through coffee.

“We have heard stories about how people were at their wits end … when they then had someone say hello, touch base or do something kind to them. [These kind acts] can completely change the view someone has on the world,” Leach said.

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How saying hello can break through the loneliness

The elderly are among the most vulnerable members of our community. It is anticipated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that there will be between 2.8 to 3.7 million people living alone by 2026 in Australia, and that many of these will be older Australians. 

Telecross is a Red Cross service that checks-in with elderly residents by ringing them daily between 9 and 10am. Red Cross volunteer Noreen Molony has been volunteering with the organisation for more than 35 years. She tells SBS the service provides essential social connection to the elderly, and comfort to their family members who live far away.  If there is no response, help can arranged quickly.

We are not just recipients of our culture,” Streker says. “We create our culture too.”

“There have been cases when clients have not answered and have been found seriously ill or injured,” Molony says.

“One client found after having a bath late at night she couldn't get out but didn't panic and stayed in the bath all night topping up the hot water because she knew when her call went unanswered help would arrive.”

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We create our own culture

It goes without saying that adults should always listen to their intuition and exercise a strong sense of responsibility when weighing up whether or not to belt out a ‘hello’ to a stranger. Not every situation in every location with every person will hold the same safety risk, or possibly produce the same desired social benefit. Streker therefore advises that people embrace the positives of saying hello while also using good judgement to assess the surrounding environment.

“We don’t have to say hello to everyone we meet, but it would be good to start by saying hello to your neighbours, or others you feel safe with, such as people next to you in a long queue. We are not just recipients of our culture,” Streker says. “We create our culture too.”

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