COVID-19 has upended our normal way of living in many ways. One of these is that days can pass without ever seeing, let alone greeting, anyone in person. Lost is that feeling of greeting another sharing the same space and air as you.
While the pandemic has impacted everyone in the world, the effects are perhaps more acute in places with a culture of greeting others. In Hawaii, though we have a major urban center, many neighborhoods still have a small-town feeling. In some places, it is common to chitchat with others, or to at least acknowledge the other passerby, even strangers.
Aloha is extending a simple nod, a smile or a greeting to all without exception, extending a spirit of hospitality to all.
In some cultures, to not greet others is sometimes interpreted as a lack of basic courtesy or obliviousness to local culture. In parts of Hawaii, such as rural areas or neighbor islands, some kamaaina have complained of the “rudeness” or the lack of courtesy of newcomers who do not know the art of the greeting. Perhaps in an anonymizing big city on the East Coast, it may not be rude to just ignore someone as you brush past them. But in Hawaii to ignore someone you encounter without any acknowledgement does seem awkward, if not “rude.”
Pre-COVID, these norms were fraying fast, with more out-of-state residents moving to Hawaii. Mobile devices have accelerated introversion, not only with family members at dinner tables but also with strangers who walk by. Staring at your phone while walking lets you conveniently ignore everyone around you, failing the art of the greeting.
But COVID, too, is starving the art of the greeting. Gone are the handshakes, hugs and honis. Greeting others is awkward and stifled when socially distanced or by Zoom. Masks hide smiles and expressions. Simple nods, eyebrow raising, hand waves or even shakas are all poor substitutes.
In virtual meetings, the opportunities to get a sense or feel for others are rare. Meetings start and end without the lingering of chitchat or random discussion in the lobby or waiting room. COVID has made it harder to build the trust and relationships needed to get things done. Conversation is stifled by digital muting or unintentional garbling. Social cues for how others feel are hard to read or sense.
Yet these technologies, including our broadband infrastructure, have also led to great productivity. Videoconferencing has made it easier for neighbor-island stakeholders to engage with Honolulu, reduced traffic, and created opportunities for recorded sessions that can be reused for training, etc.
Still, amid the stress and anxiety in Hawaii’s worst economic crisis in decades, after a series of Zoom meetings, it is perhaps too easy to forget that on the other end of that sterile digital device is not a mere robot or videogame, but a living, breathing human being with emotions and consciousness. Empathy on a digital device requires more intentionality.
There have been so many losses — both tangible and intangible — from COVID and so the loss of the art of the greeting may seem negligible. Yet to convey the aloha of Hawaii’s culture of gently greeting others through a videoconference or through a face mask, we will have to be more intentional and deliberate — to rely more on our words and tones, on emojis and icebreakers and breakout rooms, or other substitutes.
Words such as e-charisma have been used to characterize these new ways of communication, but perhaps for Hawaii, what we need to consider is e-aloha. With no end in sight for COVID, 2021 will give us more opportunities to express aloha in new, electronic ways. When old ways are lost, new ways may be found.
Victoria Y. Fan is an associate professor of public health and interim director of the Center on Aging in the University of Hawaii-Manoa; she also chairs the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling workgroup (www.hipam.org).