In 1990, my husband and I went to Egypt for two weeks as part of our honeymoon. It was an amazing trip and some day, I hope to be able to return. There’s a certain amount of stress that comes from traveling in an unknown place, with a different language, and customs. Everywhere we went in Egypt we were greeted on the street, “Welcome to Egypt!”

“How nice,” you might think. And from certain people, regular folks who were just passing by and being friendly, it was nice, to a point. However, imagine that you are greeted this way several times an hour, every hour, for the entire day. And imagine that some of the people are trying to sell you things and they might even follow you down the street for awhile in an attempt to engage you. You get a 45 minute long break on Mondays through Fridays during the television broadcast of edited repeats of the U.S. evening soap opera, Falcon Crest. During that 45 minutes, Cairo commerce shut down.

You might now think this could get pretty exhausting. It was very exhausting. There was no privacy. We already knew that we stuck out as foreigners from a wealthy country. With every, “Welcome to Egypt” we needed to consider whether someone was just being nice or whether someone was trying to engage us in a business transaction. If you’ve ever experienced a culture that takes bargaining an negotiation seriously, you’ll know what I mean. When we learned to ignore shop merchants, it shortened the interaction, but since pretending to ignore a merchant is actually an initial bargaining strategy, there was still an interaction. It was still not clear that we were not biting.

You’re walking down the street, not as an invitation to constant interpersonal engagement, but as a means of transportation. You are walking to get from one place to another. And each time you do this, you are constantly spoken to, sometimes with sincere friendliness and sometimes because someone wants something from you.

Sound familiar?

Last month, a New York based anti-harassment group made a video, using a hidden camera, of a young woman, dressed plainly and speaking to no one, walking on the sidewalks of New York for 10 hours. Men initiated conversation with her constantly. Some of them used polite words, some did not. Some use polite words, impolitely, ‘I told you that you are beautiful. You should say, “thank you.”‘ One man followed the woman for several minutes.

The video was very popular and had millions of views. It inspired the writing of a number of articles in well regarded news outlets. There were responses and comments made by normal citizens such as you and me.

Some of the comments were along the lines of “What’s the big deal? She should take the attention as a compliment.”

On the other end of the spectrum were opinions that men just should not greet unknown women on the street.

I understand both of those positions, really I do. But I find them to be a sad reflection on our culture.

Although I live in Seattle, a major U.S. city, it is one of the smaller ones.  Seattle has a reputation for being polite but not friendly. Some people call this, “the Seattle Freeze”. My neighborhood, in some respects, has the feel of a small city. I’ve never felt “the Seattle Freeze” even though to many people, it is very surprising that I am  native to this area. Many assume that I am from the northeastern part of the U.S. despite my characteristic Northwest regional accent. (We say we don’t have accents here because what we speak is pretty close to standard American English, which is an accent in and of itself, by the way.)

In my neighborhood, I walk around and people smile or say, “hello”. I am often, but not always, the person who initiates the greeting. Most of the people I see are people I don’t know. People are friendly in the grocery store. If they see me choose an item they like, I may hear, “Oh, those are so good!” One day, a woman was so excited that we carried the same brand of practical but cute organizer handbag, Baggalini, that she spoke to me about it’s virtues for about 10 minutes. That was, perhaps, a bit much.

Yesterday, I visited a different neighborhood, Capital Hill. It is a beautiful neighborhood with lively hipster culture. I walked through the business district, a residential area, and in a city park. Two people were friendly when I greeted them, an older woman who was walking home from the grocery store and a middle-aged man who I passed on the stairs on the way down from the top of a historic water tower in the park, which has good views of the area. Everyone else I passed either ignored me, returned my greeting anxiously, or purposely averted their gaze.

I experienced the Seattle Freeze! I was a harmless looking middle aged woman wearing work out clothes and carrying a Baggalini, for goodness sakes! Now it is true that Capital Hill has higher population density than my neighborhood and further, that businesses are mixed in with homes, to a greater degree. There is a lot more car traffic. I don’t know if the crime rate is higher there but it feels like it is, perhaps just due to the more hurried pace there.

I would like to live in a world where exchanging a greeting is just that, an acknowledgement that there are others in the world besides me and that those people might appreciate a “hello” and a smile. We are acknowledging that the other person matters and that we belong. There are places where it is so crowded that this is not possible or desired, at least on the street. It is overwhelming and too much.

Maybe “hello”, “nice weather”, “cute dog” and other comments are trivial. But as we know from research on women’s relationships, the function of having regular discussion of less deep matters (in addition to the majorly deep and important topics we discuss), is important. For women, these discussions help maintain connections and friendships. Few will argue that when it comes to maintaining friendships, women tend to be better at this than are men, as a group.

Most of us have daily opportunities for those pleasant connections. And these connections help maintain ties in a community.

Welcome to the world.