Smiling at Strangers

Because this post’s title probably has immediate connotations in your mind, let me first explain what it isn’t. This post is not a Pollyanna-esque rambling about spreading smiles all over the world.  It’s not an abstract inspirational piece with little practical application.  This entry is a description of an assignment  my counselor gave me a year or two ago, an assignment I entered into rather begrudgingly.  The ongoing assignment: to slow down and notice people in my natural environment, to smile at them and, when the opportunity presented itself, to engage them in conversation.

As I remember it, this assignment–as most of the assignments he’s given me–arose out of an argument… me arguing I was invisible and forgettable and him pointing out maybe I had something to do with that (both in terms of my perception and in terms of me making it hard for people to notice me).  Walking into the grocery store soon after that conversation, I quickly realized his point.  I walked into the store at my normal fast-paced clip, efficiently made my way to exactly what I needed, “expertly” navigated the self check-out, and headed out to my car… eyes never deviating from my path.  In most everything I do, I’m focused and efficient.  It’s a strength… till it’s not.

The purpose of the assignment was two-fold: one, for me to get out of my box and attempt to engage other people, and two, for me to practice seeing people as Jesus did… not just a superficial glance, but to truly look at and value people (instead of just seeing them as an object playing a function in my life).  (I think this was also around the time I was reading Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus by Paul Miller… so it all tied together).
I started off just trying to smile at people.  It’s really hard to catch some people’s gaze, especially when you’re pretty hesitant about it like I was.  Sometimes my attempts at conversation would just fall flat.  As my counselor reminded me several times, it wasn’t people’s responses that were important–it was that I made the attempt.
After awhile, I got pretty “good” at it… at least, I was more willing to try consistently because of the connections I realized I was able to make with people, even if just for an instant.  I remember walking through Target one day and getting like five people in a row to truly smile back.  I felt like I should get extra points for that or something.
Anyway, as it’s become more natural for me to acknowledge other people and to make conversation, these are some of the things I’ve realized…
  • It makes me feel less alone.  Even if I don’t talk to the people I pass–even if I just see them and “see them see me”–it’s a connection that breaks through the feeling of being by myself.
  • It gets me to stop thinking about myself for a little while.  When I’m noticing other people around me, it’s simply harder to think about me.  I’m thinking more about who they are and what life if like for them in that instant.
  • People are beautiful when they smile.  It just transforms people’s faces… people who I otherwise would have thought were stressed or annoyed or tired or bored.  Maybe some of them are feeling that way, but when they smile, I see that those momentary feelings are not who they are.  There’s simply a physical beauty and a beauty of personality that comes through when people smile, and it makes me glad to have connected with them.
  • People are more likely to smile at me when my hair is in braided pigtails. I’m partly just saying this because I think it’s funny, but it’s also something to think about.  I’m not saying you should wear pigtails, of course (I can’t even do the pigtails for awhile because I just cut off several inches of my hair).  Still, there are ways to make yourself more approachable… even if it’s just changing your posture.  Or maybe it’s dressing/grooming yourself in a way that you feel more confident and thus more comfortable engaging people.
  • It makes errands a lot more interesting.  Once I asked a cashier about her unique colorful headband, and she explained she made it out of scraps of old t-shirts… an idea she found online.  Ever since then I’ve been meaning to look it up and try it myself!  After these conversations, instead of rushing out to get back to my car and get home, I realize I’m moving at a more leisurely pace, smiling and thinking about the conversations I’ve just had.
This post doesn’t really have a conclusion, because the assignment doesn’t really have an end.  Instead, since I’ve been “working” on this assignment for awhile, I do have some suggestions if you decide to try this yourself… 🙂
  • Slow down. Sure, there are times when we all need to do things quickly.  If you feel like that’s all the time for you, then maybe there’s something to change about, that, too (but that’s a different conservation).  Most of the time, it won’t hurt to simply slow your pace down and notice your surroundings and the people around you.
  • Look up. Be honest… when someone is walking past you in a public place, do you acknowledge them?  Or do you start studying the products on the shelf behind you, check your phone, and/or become really interested in whatever you are holding in your hand?  Yes, it can feel awkward to actually look at people you don’t know, but you’d be surprised how many people you naturally encounter each day when you take the social risk of noticing.
  • Be creative. It’s not as hard as you might think to make conversation with a complete stranger.  I usually end up talking to people working at a store I’m in, since that’s usually more natural.  These are some of the topics I’ve come up with…
    • the weather (is it unusually cold?  really nice weather? a big storm predicted?)
    • their job (are they adept at a certain aspect of it at it? is it a really busy time for them–could you ask them about that and let them vent for a minute?)
    • their jewelry (ok, this might not work if you’re a guy, but most any female will start launch into an explanation if you compliment them on their jewelry.. and hey, just the other day I asked a male cashier about his watch and he told me all about the other much nicer one he has at home)
    • something else they’re wearing (a team shirt? an “employee of the month” badge?)
    • a big event (Super Bowl, upcoming holiday, news story, etc.)… the other day I lamely pointed out to my cashier that she didn’t have to make an effort to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day because her uniform shirt is green.  She then got really excited and showed me her socks because she’d worn shamrock socks that day.. not even realizing it was St. Patrick’s Day.
    • their name–you wouldn’t believe how many people have interesting stories behind their names–their heritage, reasons their parents chose different spellings, etc.  One teenager told me her mom had spelled her name unusually because of a snide comment her brother made in the delivery room.  Pretty funny.
My final suggestion: just try it.  I’d love to hear some of your stories when you do!
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3 Responses to Smiling at Strangers

  1. Anonymous says:

    Found it trying enough to refrain from grimacing at passersby…but experimentally complimented a cashier on her vintage baubles and discovered that she could pin my home town on a map and recount the disarray of DC following the assassination of MLK…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Emily, Your observations/suggestions really hit home. I have made an effort many times to smile at people especially while shopping. It does lift your spirits. But, just last week, I was on the receiving end of this gesture. The past few months have been especially stressful and I had been feeling pretty low. I had passed a pleasant-looking woman in several of the aisles of Giant. Both of us smiled briefly each time we passed. After several passes, the woman backed up her cart. She turned around and said, “I just wanted to tell you that you look very pretty in that color.” As I write this, I have tears in my eyes because I am still so touched by that woman’s kindness. I am sure that she had no idea how I needed a positive comment like that. She made my day! Spreading simple joy is contagous. I definitely plan on continuing to share a smile and as many nice comments as I can.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well said, Em! People love to smile at my 20 month old daughter. Her joy is infectious. I wonder at what point we lose the joy of saying “hi” to another person and trade it to only share with a select few. What I’m learning is that the more smiles and joy I share, the more I have to share! I don’t need to just save it and ignore the rest. Thank you for your keen insights!

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