“You Americans are so self-involved and rude,” the Parisian said to me from behind his counter. He could have been plucked from the “indignant French hotelier” category from central casting.
My eyes widened and my cheeks grew hot.
I was 28 years old and in Paris for the first time. I had celebrated the 2001 New Year with my graduate school friends, but most of them had already flown back to the States. Consequently, I found myself one afternoon exploring Paris on my own.
I had little experience being alone in a foreign-speaking country. I didn’t have a cell phone or navigation technology, only a simple paper map of the city. Nighttime came early, and while trying to find a metro station to return to my lodging in the 12th Arrondissement, I got lost.
I was scared and panicked, wandering through dark narrow streets. When I spotted a hotel, I made myself walk into the lobby to ask for directions. My knowledge of the French language was based on middle school classes, yet I had still been trying on this trip. Disappointingly, no Parisian had understood my attempts so far. So I just launched into my request in English.
“Excuse me?” (No response.) “Excuse me?” I said again, with greater urgency. “I’m lost and I don’t know where the metro is?”
The hotelier finally paused and looked up, his stare drenching me in his oozing disgust. I didn’t know why he was so unhappy with me.
“You Americans are so self-involved and rude,” he said in English. “You can’t even say hello first.”
Oh. Crap. I didn’t say hello.
As an American sociologist, there’s no greater shame than being labeled a rude American while traveling. But I didn’t know the cultural importance of just saying hello first.
I was reminded of this embarrassing story recently when I was coaching a couple. They are a heterosexual couple who have been married for 9 years and have two small children. They are overwhelmed with staying on top of all of life’s priorities. And amidst the chaos, they are drifting apart.
Through our discussions in one session, the husband came up with one simple request of his wife: to greet him wherever he walked into a room. To say hello. To acknowledge his presence. To take a moment to let him know that he matters.
A hello, a bonjour that acknowledges you’re sharing the space with another human, is a simple yet valuable show of respect for another’s humanity. And when done with intention and sincerity, it’s an opening for a meaningful human connection.
It may sound silly to say, but I fear we may be losing our “hellos” in today’s society. With our heads buried in our phones, the constant pull and ease of technology, and a reduction in social skills due to the pandemic, we are not simply acknowledging the humanity of those in front of us in the same way.
So… hello. I see you, and you matter. We all matter.
P.S. I’ve been to Paris twice since 2001 and you better believe that I bonjour the hell out of that town. I’m also mindful about greeting my partner any time he walks in the room, even if I’m absorbed in something else. Like any mindfulness skill, it takes time to cultivate…but it also feels right and lovely.
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus — San Diego Intimacy Speaker, Sociologist, & Relationship Coach