Smiling At Strangers

Photo: Zitona

When I was a first-year medical student, my classmates and I used to go down to the hospital cafeteria between lectures to buy snacks.  The women from whom we bought them at the check-out counters were all young and sullen, rarely even glancing up at their customers as they rang up purchases.  Their customers, in turn, seemed equally uninterested in them.  So I decided one day I was going to get them to smile each time they rang up my purchases.  To do this, I decided I’d simply start smiling at them myself.

“Hello!” I started saying each time I’d approach.  At first, they actually shrank from me physically.  But within a few days, they started to smile back at me.  And as time passed and I continued to smile and say a bright hello each time I came before them, I noticed something interesting:  most of the time they were still wearing the same lifeless expressions.  I’d become their “on” switch.  Their focus was so concrete that to the person in line right before me they remained their same apparently disinterested, unhappy selves.  But as soon as I entered the narrow band of space immediately before them, their eyes would suddenly light up and their mouths would curve into a smile.  And I could tell, though we never exchanged any words other than “hello” and they knew absolutely nothing about me, that they were genuinely glad to see me.

Such, I discovered, is the power of a smile, even between strangers.  In the intervening years I’ve found myself wondering why most people don’t smile at people they don’t know.  In observing my own reactions, I’ve noticed the following:

  1. I’m often lost in my own thoughts, trying to solve a problem, ruminating over one I can’t, planning or thinking about what I’m about to do.  In short, I’m everywhere except where I actually am.
  2. Even when I think to smile at passing strangers, I can’t always muster up a genuine one.  It turns out, according to V.S. Ramanchandran in his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, we’re capable of mounting two different kinds of smiles, one genuine and the other forced, which are in fact generated in two separate parts of the brain.  They look different, these two smiles, which is why we can always tell one from the other with ease.  To produce a genuine smile we must genuinely feel like smiling.  To smile at a stranger in a meaningful way, then, requires we muster some kind of real feeling for them—that we care about someone we don’t know, if only in a small way.  Thus, for me, smiling at strangers is a small exercise in compassion.  The benefit of smiling accrues to me as well as to those at whom I’m smiling, however:  studies have also shown that feeling just as often follows expression.  That is, when we smile, it actually makes us happier, even, it turns out, if our smile is forced.
  3. Smiling at strangers might be taken as an invitation I don’t want to offer—for a conversation I don’t want or have time for, or for some kind of entry into my life (however small it may be) that feels invasive.  We often guard our privacy intensely and prefer the barriers that exist between strangers to persist, finding ourselves reluctant to break them down even a little bit.  But that attitude, I’ve found, often conceals an inability to set appropriate boundaries.  If we’re in a hurry, we can simply hurry along.  Or excuse ourselves.  Or employ any number of socially appropriate reasons to keep a stranger at a social distance we find comfortable.

In the end, of course, I concluded that I really had no good reason not to smile at everyone.  Certainly, it takes some amount of attention and energy. But in smiling at strangers, I acknowledge their humanity, and in doing that, in reminding myself of it, I promote peace.  How?  By bringing joy to others that’s far out of proportion to the investment required—as I learned seven years after I first started my smiling experiment.  I’d finished medical school and residency, and had returned to the University of Chicago as an attending physician.  One day soon after I’d arrived, I went down to buy lunch in the same cafeteria.  And when I approached the check-out line, I found myself greeted by a cashier I didn’t at first even recognize who, wearing a happy, surprised smile, suddenly exclaimed in delight, “Where have you been?”

Next WeekMaking The Most Of Milestones

39 comments to Smiling At Strangers

  • Emily

    This story made me smile!

  • Thank you for reminding us of this “little thing that matters.” My 12-year-old daughter just spent a weekend at a youth retreat where she had to enter a group of middle school students where she didn’t know anyone. As I watched her nervousness cause her to scowl and hold her arms close to her chest, I saw how the other kids didn’t approach her because she seemed so standoffish. I noticed another girl using the same body language. Sensing my daughter needed some modeling in this challenging new social situation, I walked up and said to both of them, “I think you two are a little nervous about connecting with the group. Why don’t you introduce yourselves and you can go make new friends together?” It was then that they exchanged that flicker of a smile that I hope was the start of a friendship. Smiling advertises “I’m okay and you’re okay.” It’s a sign of mutual acceptance and the beginning of that human connection that we all desperately need. :-)

  • Having spent much of my life as an introvert I often freeze in groups and feel quite self conscious (and inadequate). In the last 6 years my life has changed a million-fold. I found that there are many people that feel just like me.

    The difference is that I now have courage to smile and briefly chat with the grocery store cashier (who has plans on going to New York city), the young security guard (who has an undergraduate degree & is applying for law school), the punk-looking kid (who got 96% in physics), the “older” man in my neighborhood who does lawn care (is a C.F.A. with over forty years experience in the financial industry—he wanted a change).

    A warm, honest, genuine smile with direct eye contact will make my day-every day. That eye contact is important.

    A real smile is as good as a 1/2 hour of sunshine!

    :)

  • Wendy S. Harpham, MD

    How timely. I just finished a fabulous, must-read Kindle book about this. Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act by Ron Gutman.

    I’ll never see smiles the same way, and I hope I’ll always be quicker to smile from now on.

    With hope, Wendy

  • tom f`

    Wonderful experience you’re sharing. Too bad it has to be limited to this site! A smile to you! Thanks so much. Tom Ferrante

  • I forgot to add sincerity is essential.

  • Steph

    I have been looking forward to this post all week.

    I have heard many times that it is the small things that make the biggest differences. And following that statement is, “a smile from a stranger.” I try to share a smile as I go through my day. I have no expectations of receiving a smile in return. It is a gift when I receive a smile. If that doesn’t happen, I then feel compassion for the person. Maybe they are struggling with a heavy load and are just too burdened.

  • Roxana

    Women may often give genuine smiles to men. Regardless of how we smile at them, many—and I mean many—men take sincerely kind smiles from adult women as invitations for preludes to lewd behavior. We DO set our boundaries with care—often to no avail, and the exchanges become something ugly (for the women). Holocaust survivors have reminded us that regardless of how or how well we engage our boundary markers, it is NOT true that folks treat us the way we teach them to. Perverted, sick or otherwise inhumane members of humanity simply do not follow the same rules as humane members do. Alex: I always appreciate your optimism vis-a-vis human interactions. However, perhaps, as a man, you are privileged in ways that you do not want to acknowledge? In any case, though I too suggest (to my friends, etc.) that smiling at strangers can absolutely produce positive, healthful, and joyful results, I also counsel them to think wisely (and realistically) about cross-gendered kindnesses. We live in a world where such advice is—unfortunately—necessary. Thanks for listening.

    ~Roxana

    Roxana: You have accurately identified my naively optimistic self-explanatory style.

    Alex

  • I like that. I do it sometimes and ask off-the-wall questions and almost always get a good happy response. I usually start by admitting I am a nosy fella and then ask what I really am interested in about them. No one has ever glared at me yet.

  • anianiau

    Thanks, Roxana, for reminding us of gender differences and potential cross-gender problems. During my first week on the social work services unit at Tripler Army Medical Center almost two decades ago, my supervisor admonished me for smiling at strangers in the elevator. She noted that such behavior could land me in trouble for exactly the reasons you’ve outlined. I was advised to learn to cultivate a “pleasant yet neutral” face in public spaces at the facility and to avoid “all but fleeting” eye contact with strangers.

  • Ellie M

    What a lovely article; it made me smile the whole way through. This is actually an experiment I used to do as a college student working weekends in my local gas station….smiling and being really friendly to the stressed-out customers that is. Part of the moral of the story I suppose is that you really never know what people have to deal with in their lives, and that something so small and simple as a smile towards someone we don’t know is like an unspoken show of hope, love and support. Knowing everyone we meet on a personal level would be tiring and impossible, but a smile keeps us forever connected!

  • Steve Hardman

    A genuine smile, like any other human engagement, has to come from the heart. Anything else is just formality. However, our heart isn’t always ready to engaged with another person, or even a situation. Therefore, the question is, “How do we cultivate our hearts, so that we are in that place to be able to even want to engage?” For myself, I have found that the Buddhist practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo can help to foster that state. However, this is no glib answer, as many things can intervene (tiredness, illness, doubt, resentment), and we sometimes have to persevere despite these. Others may be able to attain this state by consciously taking actions to cultivate a humanistic benevolence (through charitable action,s for instance). However one does it, I believe it is the essence of being human and (insignificant as it can some times appear) is actually one of the most valuable things we can do.

  • Laura

    It’s possible that you simply wanted to influence these people, and that it was more about your need to feel powerful than giving something they needed (maybe sometimes people need a smile, other times not). Not surprising—you are a doctor and want to heal others—a very powerful position.

    When I was a child, complete strangers would walk up to me and tell me to smile, that life couldn’t be that bad. Little did they know that my father had died of a slow and very painful cancer. Plus, I think my face has always lacked affect. I felt angry and insulted when strangers would point out my lack of cheerfulness. I would have preferred some validation.

    Making eye contact with strangers and smiling can feel invasive.

    Laura: It truly wasn’t about me exercising my sense of power. I just thought since we all so easily influence one another in negative ways, going out of my way to brighten someone else’s day in a positive one would be a good thing to do. The best thing about using a smile for this purpose is that it contains no judgment and requires no knowledge about its recipient’s circumstances to have exert its beneficial effects.

    Alex

  • Patty

    Reason #3 resonated with me especially. I am naturally smiley and as a result I get approached a lot. I recently moved from Miami to DC, where I am required to interact with strangers on a daily basis (public transport) and found myself forcing myself to walk around with a frown to minimize the number of people that approach me on the street. But the reality is, that I want to smile but need to learn to set boundaries. Thank you!

  • Mary

    One day some years ago, I was feeling quite down and worried (and must have looked it). A coworker greeted me with a big smile and a few pleasant words and went on her way. Unbelievably, after this interaction, I began to feel much lighter, even happy. My coworker hadn’t even asked if/why I was looking unhappy. Her brightness (smile) somehow worked its magic on me. Thanks for this column which made me remember how transformed I felt that day.

  • gloria

    At a very early age, my mother, a teacher, explained to me the many smiles available to one, and throughout a life of now more than seventy years I have heeded her lessons and without negative feedback but many times with much surprise in cities where I have lived: “You must not be from here…”

    As a well-traveled, long-time resident of cities NYC, SFO, L.A., D.C. and Baltimore, I found the supposition amusing and replied that smiling was therapeutic—to both the smiler and the smilee—I watched eyes light up while minds reeled through the possibilities.

    Smiles have afforded me excellent treatment at home and abroad—

    I’m smiling at all of you as I write this—thanks, Alex—I’m going to forward this to my contacts!

  • Kevin

    Delightful! Thanks.

  • Freddie Oakley

    Dear Alex,
    I have a prosthetic hip and I fly a lot. That means I get the “pat down” at my local airport each and every time. Long ago, I decided that it was my goal to be the nicest customer the TSA ladies get every time. They appreciate it, and it makes me feel good, too. We all have hard jobs and complicated lives, why not be the nicest customer everywhere, every day? I recommend it highly.

  • annie

    One of my favorite quotes that I try to live up to:

    Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

    Henry James (1843-1916)

  • Carol

    You really should move to Texas! Everyone here smiles all the time; in fact, if they don’t, it is the exception!

  • Ariel

    You are right on. An easy smile goes a long way. Most people want them, even if they are looking at every direction but at you.

  • dianne aslett

    Most important I think is to be true to myself and not to feign friendliness when in fact I am feeling far from friendly. If I smile at someone when it is not a true expression of my feelings, then surely this is both insincere and asking for complications. I believe it may also be true that the use of smiling (and it can be seen as a function) is a form of manipulation, and on that basis invalidates any virtue that may be claimed for it as a means to spread a sense of well-being and human kindness or a sense of “commun-ion” if you like. “Smiling” is understood by anthropologists/psychologists furthermore, as a more or less unconscious means of warding off aggression, and I believe there is truth in this. I believe Thich Nhat Hahn encouraged people to present the smile as he claimed it would change a person’s mood to a benevolent state, and for this reason was a good action. I think this may sometimes be true, but not always, and I would go with the view that a forced smile can be experienced by the other as very uncomfortable and discomforting; after all it is concealing hidden negative agendas. In general it is better in my opinion to outflow genuine expressions and not manipulate them. If the heart can be transformed first, and then express that genuine generosity of spirit, that is lovely and will be communicated, but it is unhelpful and foolish I think to feign an impression.

    “To thine own self be true/and thus it follows as the night the day,… thou canst not then be false to any man.” (from Hamlet).

  • Jen

    “Consciousness is caught not taught.”

    May we all be so blessed to associate with happy people.

  • Dan Defensor

    Driving down from Wisconsin to Illinois to work last year, there was this one tollbooth operator who always greeted me or anyone else genuinely. He seemed to be “all there” for me or YOU. My morning didn’t seem complete until I would exchange a few words with him in greeting or banter. He was a tall, thin, scraggly man with a hoarse voice but a twinkle in his eye, unruffled in his attitude. Other operators seem distant, bored, acting robotic,and some looking so beat down, grouchy or irritable, never making eye contact. With this fella, you could feel LIFE.

    Dan: Great story.

    Alex

  • dianne aslett

    The only hope for you is to be in deep contact with somebody who is awakened. The awakened one is called the master—satguru. If you can find a master, don’t miss the opportunity—surrender, relax into his being, imbibe his awareness, let his fragrance surround you. And the day is not far away when you will also be awakened, you will also be a Buddha.

    Osho

  • Joan Helbacka

    In agreement with Laura’s February 6 post… I can only quote Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” A freely given smile with brief eye contact is welcome but a lack of response may very well be a non-verbal request that further interaction may be unwelcome. Like Laura I found the verbal demand to “Smile, because things couldn’t be that bad!” intrusive. I doubt the questioners are really interested in knowing what my great battle of the moment is. I was once tempted to spend the flight time from Seattle to Oakland telling my seat mate that things actually were that bad but when I made eye contact with him he realized that I was distressed and his flight wouldn’t be enlivened by conversation. To his credit he did help me with my carry-on, asked if I was being met when we landed, and hung back to be sure that I was met. A belated thank you to a kind caring man.

  • Mary K

    A smile is my gift to others. If you want to up the ante, make eye contact, too. That can be intense.

  • Joy

    Wow, I don’t know where Roxana and anianiau live but it sure doesn’t sound very pleasant! Come live in New Zealand where you can smile at everyone as much as you please and nobody even thinks of taking it the wrong way!

    I’m a reasonably attractive 32-yr-old woman and I always make eye contact and smile as I pass a stranger in the street regardless of who they are—it’s kind of expected around here. I’ve never received anything other than a smile and the occasional cheerful hello in return.

  • dianne aslett

    I think it is important not to get too Pollyanna-ish about this! Authenticity is a very important value. If someone is in a lot of pain: physical, emotional or mental—well, smiling might just not be the best way to deal with it. If you feel overflowing with joy, love and peace and goodwill all day and everyday, then it unlikely to be genuine. I would rather know who you are, and for a person at least to approach a true expression of that at any one time, than you put on a mask just to live up to some ideal philosophy. I don’t mean “spit at me” if you are passing me on the street and you are feeling angry, but I do mean don’t feign friendliness when you are feeling miserable. What often happens when people pretend, is that very troublesome, uncomfortable and complicated consequences can follow which might have been avoided, and the accusation of betrayal also, if the pretense had not been the modus operandi in the first place.

  • gloria

    My mother taught that smiling was extremely important when things were looking dark—

    Smile and you’ll improve your mood and see all the good around you!

    At 73, I can tell you it works for both the smiler and the smilee!

    Isn’t this one of the tenets of eastern philosophy???

  • Emma

    Brilliant post by the way…

    I think some people on here are taking a simple smile way too seriously. Everyone loves it when someone smiles at them or says “good morning.” It makes you feel like a human being again, not just a nobody in a world full of other nobodies. Of course you are not going to be feeling overjoyed all the time, when walking to a boring job for example, but if you have to pass someone on the pavement you smile at them. It’s weird walking past another human and pretending they don’t exist. It’s unnatural not to acknowledge them in some way.

    Obviously us girls have to be wary not to be too outlandish with our smiles, but any intelligent person knows not to bare their pearly whites to a group of drunken middle aged men standing outside a pub smoking—for example. There’s asking for trouble, and there’s being human.

    Thanks for the post,

    Em x

  • It sure has been interesting reading so many strong reactions to such a “feel-good” topic as the human smile. :) Reading the responses was a good reminder to me once again that our different life experiences cause us all to view even the simplest of gestures so differently. As Steven Covey so eloquently points out, yet another reason to “seek first to understand, then be understood.” Alex’s topic did get me thinking about how the smile is the gateway to human connection and the experience of human love. This is why babies smile by instinct within weeks of being born. If anyone is interested in reading more of my thoughts on these essential elements of “connecting” I invite you to read my posting from last week at http://www.karanancemd.posterous.com Thank you, Alex, for stirring up so many interesting thoughts!

  • Vivienne

    In Mallorca it is usual to greet everyone one passes with a smile and a good morning—whether we know them or not. I am very aware that sometimes with the older ones it can be their only contact in a day. They have probably had more deprivations in their life than I have—if they can smile (with their eyes as well)—then so can I.

  • Peter

    I’ve just discovered your blog and have already read several wonderful posts, including this one. I’m not as mindful about smiling at strangers as you are, but I agree with everything you say here. Also, you never know how much a smile can mean to another person. Some years ago the New Yorker had an article about the prevalence of suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve never forgotten the note that one of them left behind in his apartment: “If one person smiles at me on the way there I won’t jump.”

    Peter: This one comment is better than my whole post.

    Alex

  • Catherine

    I read this post last month; it was in the back of my mind when I read this piece, which is written within the context of having a more productive work life, but it is essentially about connecting and being more active in life. I think it adds a nice dimension to the subject of your post.

    http://www.jonathanfields.com/blog/how-to-pick-up-a-stranger-or-produce-brilliant-work/

  • Ness Welham

    I have just started following you after a reference to your site by a journalist I know.

    For years I have been a pretty consistent smiler…after a particular incident…I was going through a toll booth and as my turn came, the attendant leaned out and said the person ahead of me had paid my toll and wished me a good day! Such a little gesture that changed me…really…people do like a smile or a small compliment…thank you for your column…Ness Welham, Montreal Canada

    Ness: Great story. Thanks for sharing it.

    Alex

  • Shanna

    Great article! Smiling at people is so impactful! Every day it amazes me when I walk down the street and smile how people are sometimes dumbfounded because it is not done often. I usually get such a shy sheepish response—which warms my heart because I know that that person has not been smiled at a lot by strangers. I do however often get a huge smile back which also warms my heart because I know that they are smilers too!

  • Jillianne

    I just found your site and am really getting a lot out of it. The topics are wonderful and touching. As for this topic, I think Emma hit the mark.

    I’m going through a scary illness right now and your site has provided a lovely diversion. Most of the commenters are wonderful and insightful as well. I also ordered your book, which I am excited to begin. I feel somehow connected to several kindred spirits through your site. Thank you for being brave enough to put your heart and soul out there.

    I am sending you a heartfelt smile.

    Jillianne: Welcome! I hope your illness resolves favorably soon.

    Alex

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