Vancouver’s “Say Hi to a Stranger” campaign encourages us to show warmth. But the interpretation of that warmth depends a lot on whether you come from a “peach” or “coconut” culture, or whether like a typical Canadian, you ride somewhere in the middle of the road.
Peaches, according to Cross-Cultural Communicator Fons Tronpenaar (see his Riding the Waves of Culture Ted Talk on You Tube), are cultures that tend to show friendliness easily. They smile, share details of family, and can be considered warm. Like peaches, they have a soft exterior, but it takes some work to reach the inner core, which is considered intensely personal.
Coconuts, on the other hand, keep their exteriors hard and fairly impenetrable to anyone not a friend or family member, but with in-group members, are full of sweetness. Coconuts don’t bother expressing inner kindness and warmth to strangers.
Peaches criticize coconuts for being cold and hard to know; coconuts criticize peaches for being insincere and shallow. Both of them make excellent friends.
Saying hi to a stranger is a decidedly “peach” activity. It reflects a campaign started in Australia close to ten years ago in which strangers offered free hugs on city streets, then made videos for You Tube showing the reactions. I was touched at the gestures and videos at the time, but after giving some thought to the idea of coconuts and peaches, I’m wondering if sometimes peaches (and I count myself in this group) don’t get a little overzealous.
My main peach activity occurs while walking my dog in the mornings and evenings, I say hello to everyone I encounter (mostly). The women with whom I walk do the same thing, so we greet other walkers with a chorus of “good mornings” or “hi’s.” Some part of our collective Canadian culture says we should do this, so in the decade I’ve been walking my dog, I’ve practiced this peach activity relentlessly on the people I encounter.
My multicultural neighbors tend to say hello back to me. But in the course of getting to know them, I’ve learned that sometimes I’m intruding. One Indo-Canadian grandfather gently smiled but gestured that he was praying, so I felt bad for dumping my hello into his already-occupied mental landscape. Another walker, a Caucasian, confided in a friend that he lives with chronic pain; he replies to our insistent hello’s through his wall of discomfort. Do we aggravate his condition, I wonder?
Years ago, I attempted to walk through Central Park in Burnaby as a form of early morning exercise. Unfortunately, I quickly decided to give it up. There were just too many people and all of them said enthusiastic hello’s to me. Yes, I appreciated the safety and friendliness I felt, but at the same time, I just wanted to walk and enjoy the quiet of the trees. I didn’t want to be social so early, particularly with people I didn’t know and would probably not ever know in a deeper way. The coconut rose up in me.
Peach and coconut tendencies arise in job interviews, too. When meeting the people who will ask you questions, you’re expected to smile and participate in light small talk. Canadians mostly like this soft introduction to an hour of questions. We believe it helps us relax.
But confusion arises, too. Sometimes, the friendliness is just too much. Receiving it, we infer things like, “they like me; I’m getting this job.” Then we don’t get hired. The disappointment seems worse because the interaction was just so warm and comfortable.
In light of learning about peaches and coconuts, I’ve decided that a reserved way of being may be more my style. Sure, I’ll still hug my friends and yes, I’ll still say hello in a more reserved way to strangers. But I will limit my peach activity to prevent being confusing.
What do you think? How should we be warm as a city? How much should we smile, say hello and make small talk?
About the Author: Gwen Pawlikowski is a freelance writer and entrepreneur who has also worked as an ISSofBC employment counsellor with newcomers. She lives in New Westminster and loves the diversity of the Lower Mainland. Please click here for information on ISSofBC’s career services.