Back in my commute-to-Washington days, most mornings I was out early walking on the National Mall, that large grassy area between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. With Arkansas friendliness, I would give a morning greeting to those walkers I passed coming toward me. It was obvious many folks would have preferred I keep my “good mornings” to myself. I used to overstate my observation this way: In Washington, if you say “hello” to other walkers, they think you’re crazy. In Arkansas, if you don’t say “hello,” they know you’re crazy.
Most Arkansans are a courteous, friendly bunch. I can still see it 40 years after becoming a transplanted Arkansan from Oregon.
This friendliness doesn’t at all eliminate our conflicts and differences, but for the most part, we treat each other, including people we’ve just met, with a welcoming warmth.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Dr. Nate Smith, and other public health leaders are relying on the good judgment of Arkansans to get us through the battle with COVID-19. The recommendations are clear: physical separation, good handwashing, using masks and face covers appropriately, minimal participation in group activities, responsible decisions as to how to reopen businesses and organizations. We know what we should do, but if we rely on only our judgment, we may sometimes talk ourselves into mistakes. The reality is if I do a quick in-and-out visit to a store and don’t wear a mask, I will likely get away with it. I probably won’t get sick, and if I do, the likelihood is that I will survive.
Here’s where our Arkansas friendliness comes in. Every time I go in a store, someone there is trying hard not to get exposed to COVID-19 because they have a chronic disease and risk factors or they have loved ones with chronic disease and risk factors. How do I know that? Because we are a state with lots of older folks and lots of folks of all ages with chronic health problems, and we all have loved ones we worry about, including our children.
My judgment that a quick trip inside a store without a mask won’t amount to much for me may be accurate, but a “maskless” face causes apprehension in the other Arkansans needing to shop. Why? Because the main purpose of a mask is to keep me from spreading disease each time I breathe, laugh, talk or cough — disease I may not know I have. And when the other shoppers, particularly those with health issues, see
my “maskless” face, they know I have increased the risk for them. That doesn’t seem very “Arkansas friendly.”
There is an economic aspect to this. Friendliness and courtesy have always been good for business. People with apprehensions about health will be slow to venture out to shop and spend money if every visit to a store means contact with “maskless” Arkansans. This new courtesy, wearing a face covering, is part of what defines good manners: making people feel comfortable. And that’s good for business.
Arkansas has advantages in the fight with COVID-19. Most of us don’t live in high-rise apartment buildings, we don’t crowd into mass transit to get to work, and most of us live in towns and neighborhoods where we can safely get outside and walk around without the need for any face covering. But I also believe one great advantage Arkansas has is the warmth of its people: We are willing to extend simple courtesies to other Arkansans, even those we don’t know.
The story of the Arkansas Traveler tells of two strangers from long ago who meet and overcome unfamiliarity by sharing parts of an old Arkansas song. Maybe we should call our masks and face coverings our Arkansas Travelers. Like a memorized song, we take them everywhere. And when we exchange a glance with the eyes of a stranger, both of us wearing long-forgotten old bandanas we found in the back of a drawer, we share the ultimate courteous Arkansas message: “I may not know you, but I’ve got your back.”