3 Dec 2023

Swedish 'Say hi!' campaign aims to connect people, reduce loneliness

9:01 am on 3 December 2023

By Venetia Sherson

28072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Stock image illustrating loneliness, depression, isloation in men, for Insight

Modern life can be isolating - especially in bigger cities. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

When I join Auckland brothers Marc and Ben Lavers at a small table outside Made, Hamilton's new upmarket food and boutique fashion precinct, it's fair to say they look surprised.

A minute before, they had happily returned my passing "hi", but when I circle back and sit down, they look more tentative.

"I thought you must have been a friend of mum and dad," says Ben, 33. "Our parents have lots of friends and they are like, 'You don't know us, but when you were a child'…"

Marc, 38, says, "I just thought you were very confident."

I'm not a friend of their parents, although I'm sure I would like them, since their sons are so cordial. I'm here to write a story about what happens when you say 'hello' to strangers.

Marc (left) and Ben Lavers from Auckland enjoying a coffee in Hamilton - and happy to have a stranger say 'hello'.

Marc (left) and Ben Lavers from Auckland enjoying a coffee in Hamilton - and happy to have a stranger say 'hello'. Photo: Venetia Sherson

The idea is based on a campaign in the small city of Luleå in northern Sweden - where people are reportedly pleasant but reserved.

A council employee came up with the idea for a "Säg hej!" (Say hi!) campaign to bring people closer during the long, dark Nordic winter when temperatures dip to -10C. The idea is that even a simple "hi" (hej in Swedish) from a stranger can make people feel seen and more connected.

I am here to test the reaction in my local suburb, Hamilton East.

I'm off to a good start when I greet Chantelle Koia, 42, a trainee midwife, who hails from Gisborne. She's out with friends to celebrate the end of their exams.

When I stop in front of her and say a cheery "hello", she thinks I've mistaken her for someone else. But, like the Lavers brothers, she has been raised to be polite, so she doesn't brush me off.

She thinks the Say hi! campaign is a great idea. "I do think a lot of people move around without anyone saying hello. In small towns that probably doesn't happen, but in cities you might never stop and have a chat."

She thinks a lot of people don't make the effort to engage face to face, which can lead to loneliness. Her grandmother used to say, "It doesn't take much to make someone's day."

According to the World Health Organisation, loneliness is now a "global public health concern". It says a quarter of older people are socially isolated and between 5 and 15 percent of adolescents, "leading to health risks comparable to smoking daily, excessive drinking and obesity".

Earlier this year, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy raised a similar red flag, saying the epidemic of loneliness and isolation, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, had turned the US into "a lonely nation", fuelling problems that were killing people and "threatening to rip our country apart".

Murthy said the issue had been escalating since the 1970s for many reasons, including changes in social norms, technology and the pandemic.

"Right now, millions of people are telling us through their stories and statistics that their tank is running on empty when it comes to social connection," he said.

I am doing my best to build connections in Hamilton East. It's a friendly suburb, packed with eateries and op shops, plus the kid-magnet Duck Island Ice Cream.

But not all encounters are positive. An older man turns away his head and then his whole body before reaching for his phone, to show he isn't up for chit chat. A young mum with a fractious toddler in tow, understandably waves me away. Another man appears to glare but may have been squinting in the sun.

A woman of my age ("no name, please") says she thinks there could be safety issues if pleasantries are misinterpreted. While my overtures are unlikely to cause offence, she says, others might be seen as predatory.

Fair point. Stranger danger is the idea that all strangers can potentially be dangerous, no matter how genial their greeting. Covid has also brought about new etiquette in social distancing. Some people still like to guard their personal space.

Thankfully, Hamilton couple Jason Ross, and Tracey Waller, both 33, are up for engagement. "I thought you were trying to sell me something," says Ross once I have explained about the Swedish initiative.

I ask them if they think Kiwis are naturally friendly. (A survey last year by Condé Nast ranked Aotearoa the fifth-friendliest country in the world - ahead of Australia in 12th, but behind Japan, Italy, Greece and Ireland.)

"Yes and no," says Ross. "Walking around day-to-day, I think we're pretty chipper. Not sure if it goes deeper than that." A dairy farmer, he says he has never experienced loneliness. "I appreciate time on my own. Solitude's good."

Waller agrees, but she also values time spent with her sister and nephews and nieces. "I think it's important to have those deeper relationships."

Deep relationships certainly keep us happier and healthier, according to Tal Ben Shahar, who wrote the New York Times-best seller Happier.

Rob Walker says his dog, Trevor, encourages people to chat.

Rob Walker says his dog, Trevor, draws strangers to say hello. Photo: Venetia Sherson

But Åsa Koski, the strategist behind the Swedish campaign, is adamant that even a simple "hej" from a stranger can make people feel better about themselves.

"People have lost the art of social engagement," she said after the launch of the campaign last month. "I think we used to be better at saying 'hello' to each another back in the old days."

She said research indicated that having a wider circle of acquaintances and neighbours - what she describes as tunna band (literally, "thin connections") - was more important for people's mental health than had previously been recognised. "What we want to do with the campaign is to build and strengthen these more superficial relationships with other people."

My last encounter in Hamilton East seems to prove her point.

Rob Walker, 55, is standing by a shop front with his six-year-old English bull terrier, Trevor. A sign invites people to smile, have a chat and pat the dog.

"He's overly friendly," Walker says, as I approach to say hello.

He adds, "Dogs draw people and then they stop and say 'hi'." Walker says the engagement is good for his mental health. He's thinking of starting a nationwide campaign to encourage more people to follow suit.

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