“Hey mon, you alright?”
“You have a blessed day.”
“How is your morning walk pretty ladies?”
“Yeah mon, no worries. Everything alright.”
These “stock phrases” are just a few of the things I heard each and every day while staying in Negril, Jamaica. I travelled to the island to take a short vacation and also attend a destination wedding this past month. While on the island, I was pleasantly greeted by the local Jamaicans anytime I left the bed and breakfast I stayed at. I was surprised at first at how friendly the locals were — I had heard from friends to be cautious of the crime in Jamaica. Nevertheless, I always responded to the locals, asking them how they were.
A few days into my trip I was with a Jamaican driver, headed to another part of the island. I chatted with the driver, Patcha, for quite a while. I asked him about their culture — views on marriage, money, economy, etc. He was open and never held anything back. I mentioned to him that the Jamaicans were all so friendly. He kind of chuckled and asked if that was out of the ordinary for me. I told him that America was different.
I went on to tell him that I am guilty of being unfriendly at times, not intentionally, but just by habit. He didn’t quite understand. I told Patcha that it isn’t uncommon in America to be walking in a hallway or down a street with one other person and for neither of them to say hello to one another. Some people even say they feel lonely in a room full of people. He burst out laughing.
I started laughing too. Why do we do this? What stops us from just initiating a conversation with others? He asked why we did this aloud. I started thinking and said, “Maybe it is because Americans are too stressed. We forget about other people because we are kind of on a mission each day.” Patcha responded, “Us Jamaicans are stressed too, we need to have food on the table every night.” I bit my tongue remembering Patcha had told me earlier that many Jamaicans live in poverty. He told me that workers at some of the larger all-inclusive resorts on the island make only about ten U.S. dollars a day. Other smaller establishments tend to not pay their workers on time or abuse their power over their employees.
Clearly stress isn’t the reason, so why do we do this? Why do we stray away from human contact when it is so easy to make a connection with another human? I couldn’t give Patcha an answer. I have been a shy person for the majority of my life, but by no means am I scared to strike up a conversation with an individual. When I returned to the United States, I noticed myself falling into old habits, just politely smiling at the person next to me in line for coffee, but never saying hi or asking the how they were today.
I wanted to write this blog post to hold myself accountable and also challenge my readers to break the silence. Say hello to strangers. Dare yourself to give someone a compliment. Make yourself more human.
As future medical professionals, part of our responsibility is to make our patients comfortable. I will count this challenge as daily practice for my career. I’ve seen many doctors put on a positive attitude for their patients, only to find them miserable outside of arms reach of a patient. What makes a stranger in the grocery store any different from a patient we are treating in the hospital?
I hope this short story will help readers see that sometimes we all need a reality check. Whatever the reason is, our culture is heading down a path of loneliness, instead of solidarity. Let’s all take responsibility for this and make changes to unite one another.
Aleah Chang is a medical student. This article originally appeared in the Medical Student Press.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com