Just say Hello! by Magdalena Schamberger

This is a lovely piece of writing by our creative facilitator Magdalena Schamberger. It’s about connection and the difference that even a small ‘smile’ or a simple ‘hello’ can make.


“I live on Leith Walk in the centre of Edinburgh. In spite of the current social distancing measures, it can be quite busy on the Walk, with people out shopping and having to form orderly queues on the pavements before being permitted inside the supermarkets. Naturally, people are also out for exercise hikes, runs and cycles and taking their dogs out for a walk. One thing I have noticed over the past few weeks is that, as well as physically distancing, people seem to have stopped looking at each other and have started shunning eye contact altogether. It appears that by trying to stay safe and avoid ‘the virus’, many of us are carefully manoeuvring our individual paths away from any sort of eye contact. I was thinking about this while on my daily exercise walk the other morning. Although I live with my husband and son, I was craving human contact outside our little family. I was watching people walking past me, mostly with eyes pinned to the ground, not only circumventing me physically, but also within their regard. The avoidance and lack of acknowledgment made me not only feel a little lonely, but also strangely ‘other’ and apart. I was wondering what would happen if I would actively look for eye contact with passer-byes and purposefully try to make connections. When I facilitate creative workshops, I often use an icebreaker that focuses on eye contact and human connection. First, I ask people to move around the workshop space, noticing their surroundings, but avoiding any eye contact with the other participants. Step 2 asks everybody to take only a fleeting glance into the eyes of a person walking past, before looking away again. Step 3 encourages to hold eye contact a little longer and add a tiny smile. Step 4 asks everyone not only to make eye contact, but to stop and make a physical connection by shaking hands. Until now, no words have been exchanged. By this stage I can usually sense everyone’s eagerness to speak and when we arrive at step 5 and I give permission to not only make eye contact and shake hands but also to say ‘hello’, a torrent of words and emotions are released. Although workshop participants will frequently not have met beforehand, they find it quite easy to have a conversation from that point onwards. I often add a final step, in which I ask participants to build on the eye contact and physical connection. I ask them to look at each other, mindfully, and notice one unique thing about their partner, point it out and pay a compliment about this. It is quite incredible, how positive this makes people feel to search the other person’s uniqueness and to hear about their own. Many find it easier to pay a compliment rather than receive one, but that’s another story… I was thinking about all of this during my exercise walk and started a little experiment. I began by glancing at fellow pedestrians coming towards me from the opposite direction. I commenced catching people’s eyes in passing with a bit more purpose. With the next person, I prolonged the eye contact and added a little smile. People started smiling back. I became more courageous and began adding a ‘hello’, which, to my surprise, was returned 9 out of 10 times. I instigated small comments, like, “What a gorgeous morning” and, “You have picked a beautiful spot for a rest” and started to have short conversations in passing. I noticed myself noticing more and more people. With an ‘open’ face and smile, people were engaging with me, with and without words. I realise, of course, that if you live in the countryside, this may be a bit more usual than here in the city centre of Edinburgh. Once I began noticing others, I could not stop. I started to see more people and more details about them. I looked up and saw three people standing at a first-floor window looking out onto the street. The person in the centre, a little older than the other two, appeared a little more fragile with a familiar, slightly confused look. Without hesitation, I raised my arm and waved, calling out a big hello, which was immediately returned to me with three beaming smiles and waves of helloes. I could feel my own delight and joy growing. My eyes were no longer pinned to the ground looking at the cobble stones, but were looking for people, buildings, details,… I was noticing and being noticed. I was seeing and being seen. I was surprising myself and others, smiling together. From my previous work, I know for sure that laughter is the shortest connection between two people. I realised how much I am thriving on these connections and how much I miss them when I am deprived of them. I believe we all do. I realise that you might be one of the people inside the window. Please know that we see you. Let us be respectful of each other, but not avoid being present for each other. Let’s give each other a small dose of connection, from time to time, in this viral space.”