Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Art of Smiling at Strangers

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Last Friday's Evening Standard Magazine ran an article called "How to Live Forever": a  light-hearted list of twenty healthy habits to adopt for enhanced living based on a bizarre mish-mash of research findings. It made for entertaining - rather than revolutionary - reading, but there was one throw away comment that stayed with me:

Londoners aren't exactly known for our warmth (smiling at a stranger on public transport? Just creepy), but if you want to live longer you might want to rethink.  

The article then moved on to talk in brief about the biological benefits of altruism, but it was the assertion about the weirdness of smiling at strangers that I found interesting.

Today a member of staff at my local tube station complimented me by saying that they liked the way I smile at them as I come through the barriers each morning, and I'm convinced that most people appreciate being on the receiving end of a little bit of warmth and personality when they're out and about in a crowd. Even so, there are definite cultural norms to navigate and I've realised that over the years I seem to have honed my skills in this area.

Smiling at strangers began as a personal project in my teenage years. I decided I wanted to interact a little more with people. I set about trying to be friendlier, but almost immediately realised I was indeed coming across as "creepy". I have a big smile, and on closer analysis I realised that grinning at people for no apparent reason makes them uncomfortable, is perceived as mockery or leads to unwanted sexual advances. Over the years I've also noticed that smiling whilst maintaining eye contact with someone seems to imply that you want to interact with them in some other way. It can make some people suspicious.

These days I generally make eye contact with most people I pass at close range, giving a small, fleeting smile at the point I begin to look away. Sometimes I see them smile back. Sometimes I get a blank stare. Sometimes I'll see them again and get a repeat smile, perhaps leading to a regular hello, maybe even a "how are you today?". I get told things: mundane things, grievances, stories. I get asked for things: directions, money, dates, to be in people's photographs (...which is, I'll admit, incredibly strange).

But I also, increasingly, get asked why I'm so happy. I have my reasons. I try and communicate them as appropriately as possible. And I've realised this is probably the most important aspect of what makes smiling at strangers a bit more socially acceptable. It has to be authentic and agenda-free. Perhaps being singled out for the attention of a stranger is odd, but just being encompassed by someone else's sense of well-being can be a welcome boost: happiness by osmosis. So far, I haven't met anyone who has a problem with that.

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