Don’t be put off by how long this post is. Just read the first part, the second part is specifically about me and less important. But I think the first part is important, it’s about everyone.
I walked through Hobart this morning listening to some beautiful music on my iPod. It was making me truly happy, despite the cloudy rainy cold morning, so I decided to share it and smiled at all the strangers passing me by.
The reactions are mixed when you smile at strangers, and are at the same time gladdening, saddening, and entertaining.
Some people ignore you completely, look away on purpose, do everything possible to avoid eye contact… especially if they’ve seen you smiling at someone else first, then obviously they don’t know you, you’re just some weirdo. (Smiling? Who does that? Really?!)
Some people look as though they’re a bit embarrassed, because of course no one smiles at strangers, so they must know you from somewhere… but they can’t think where… so they give you the awkward, grimacing smile of someone who obviously doesn’t want to be rude for not smiling at someone they know… but they have no clue who you are. These ones are pretty funny to witness. I wonder if they spend the next fifteen minutes wondering frantically who I am. The child of a friend? An ex-coworker? Did they sleep with me last Friday when they got so trashed they didn’t remember it the next day??
Then there are some people who know they don’t know you, but they thankfully acknowledge your existence. They might spend a brief moment panicking about whether they know you, but smile anyway when they realise they don’t, in which case you only catch a glimpse of their smile at the last minute as they pass you. These are bittersweet smiles.
Some people might smile at you because they feel a compulsion to return a smile when smiled at – you’re obviously giving them a smile, so they feel guilty if they don’t smile back. Two steps on they might look back at you because they’re curious about this total freak who smiled at them.
From pretending you don’t exist, to avoiding eye contact with the weirdo, to oh-shit-do-I-know-them half-smiles, to last-minute grins, to guilty grimaces, it is fascinating to see the variety of reactions you get when you smile at strangers.
I haven’t yet received a smile at full-wattage from another person who knows I’m a stranger but doesn’t care. When I do, I’ll let you know. Maybe you can help me out here and make it you.
The more you smile, the more you want to smile. It’s a positive cycle. Try it sometime. Just try smiling as you walk down the street. To increase your confidence, you can try it at first while listening to music, so people don’t think you’re too weird, because you’re smiling about something you’re listening to instead of nothing in particular. Or if you’re really shy, pretend that you’re reading a sweet text message on your phone from someone who loves you. Gradually work your way up to unabashed sharing of joy, making eye contact, saying “Hi. I don’t know you, but I think you deserve some joy in your day.”
Rainy days can often be the most effective days to give a smile. The contrast between the light on your face and the grey around you makes it all the more effective, and people are more likely to be thankful for the pick-me-up. Then again, on sunny days people may be more open to being smiled at, and more likely to smile back.
Some days it will seem easy to do. Some days it will seem impossible.
I am a strange kind of creature who has a different social experience every day, because my moods swing so harshly that I feel like a different person every day.
Sometimes I have a lot of difficulty with social situations. I find it incredibly difficult to make small talk and will avoid having to, at any cost. If people come to my house when I feel this way, or I have to visit others’ houses, I feel so uncomfortable & anxious about social contact that I often hide in another room, under any pretence I can think of, to the point of rudeness, because I feel ridiculously terrified. If forced into social contact I will often become snippy & rude. When faced with strangers walking past me on the street, I will cast my eyes downwards and avoid eye contact at all costs.
It becomes even more terrifying at my school/workplace. The people passing me in the corridors are much more likely to actually be people I know. Often I don’t know them all that well. I don’t know whether they like me or not. I don’t know whether they want to be smiled at or not. Will they think I’m rude if I don’t? Will they think I’m weird if I do? How well do you have to know someone before it’s acceptable to smile at them in the corridor? Once I smile, do I have to say “Hi”? Is that then required to be followed with the obligatory “How are you?” Should we even bother, seeing as in two seconds we will have passed each other and continued in opposite directions, making the confused reply of “eeerRRRyeahgoodmff” even more incredibly awkward?
This may sound like I’m trying to describe myself as having Asperger’s Syndrome or some other form of autism/social disorder, but the reality is I am certainly not in a minority by any stretch of the imagination. Most of you reading this will be familiar with these kind of feelings at some level. We are all faced with this kind of social anxiety, which is a result of the society we live in, the new ways we are connecting and the new ways in which we are rapidly disconnecting from each other.
This problem is obvious here in cheerful, smalltown Hobart – I imagine the problem must be thousandfold more serious in big cities. New York. Los Angeles. London. In a huge city, surrounded by people, I think individuals are feeling more alone & disconnected than ever.
The only way this will ever change is by us – individuals – changing the way we think, and taking the brave step to connect with other people. The internet is an amazing & wonderful tool, and I love the possibilities it creates for connection (have you guys seen Ustream? I played music on there the other day to an audience of 10 people I knew and 10 people I didn’t know. Truly fascinating & inspiring!) But the negative side of all this new technology is that people are communicating more and more this way, and forgetting how to connect with someone sitting next to them at the bus stop.
On a good day, when I am feeling peaceful, when the music is just right, I smile at everyone. I say hello to EVERYONE at my work/school/whatever, because even if I don’t know them, I would like to! I show an interest in everyone and how they are doing, because I am genuinely interested, and I know it makes people happy to know it. Small talk isn’t even necessary, because I start making stupid jokes, asking questions, and conversation happens naturally, and the person I’m talking to starts to smile. I sing walking down the street, and if I see something beautiful, I stop to look. I want to share the way I feel.
Have you noticed how people will stand up on a half-full bus/train/tram, despite there being free seats everywhere? It’s baffling. But I know why. We’re all freaking terrified of each other.
We are so mind-numblingly scared of what other people think of us. What other people think of themselves. What other people are thinking. Whether they have germs. Whether they’re weirdos. Whether WE are weirdos. Whether you can catch The Weird. Or The Germs. Or The Old. Or The Gay. Or The Ugly.
The only things that are truly contagious, people, are Fear and Joy. And you can CHOOSE. You can choose which to have, and which to spread.
It sounds corny. But the bare truth is, we desperately need to hear it. And live it. We have to start being comfortable with who we are – we’re all human, we all have the same fears and hopes. It’s okay. You can sit down next to someone else on the bus. You can smile at them. You can laugh about it if you fall over when the bus stops suddenly. You can whistle walking down the street. You can even sing. I promise you nothing terrible will happen. Odd looks are not the end of the world.
I GIVE YOU PERMISSION.
And once you start doing it, out of the twenty people that pass you & give you odd looks, one of them will be inspired. One of them might pass the smile you gave them on to another. One of them might decide the world isn’t such a harsh & terrifying place after all, because a stranger smile at them today! One of them might see that you’re not spontaneously combusting from doing something out of the ordinary, and they might work up the courage to do it themselves. And thus, one positive feeling leads to another, and maybe one day we’ll all be smiling.