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Smiling at Strangers

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By: Helen Liu

I’m too busy.
They’ll take it as an invitation.
I’ll be labelled as a crazy person.

Smiling at strangers on the street is the norm in some small towns in America. Here in DC? Awkwardly avoiding eye contact with strangers is definitely the mainstay. Sometimes, I think about smiling, but usually I get caught up in some excuse. It didn’t feel like an important decision anyway.

But what if it is? According to a study featured by LiveScience, being pointedly ignored by a stranger can increase feelings of isolation, despite the lack of familiarity. A few days ago, I decided to test out if the opposite was also true: Would being noticed by a stranger make us feel more connected?

So I made “smiling at strangers for a whole day” #16 on my list. For the next few weeks, as part of an experiment to increase my happiness, I’m tackling a long list of everything that scares me or makes me uncomfortable. Smiling at strangers seemed easy, so I kicked off my experiment with it.

At first, smiling at random people on the sidewalk, the metro, or wherever felt extremely awkward – more uncomfortable than I expected. It is as if avoiding eye contact has become a social convention in large cities. Social convention #1948: Never acknowledge strangers positively, always treat them just like an object to be maneuvered around and ignored. Like a moving tree.

Nevertheless, as the day went on, I got used to feeling the slight rush of awkwardness. I started noticing how infectious smiling is, how smiling back at a happy person is practically inevitable. Even the grumpy store clerk I bought chocolate from wore down under my smile, her lips quirking upward. In longer situations, people seemed to be just waiting for an invitation to open up. For example, a man rushing into an elevator smiled back with relief and started telling me about how busy his day had been. The guy sitting next to me on the metro complimented my bag. A barista gave me a free croissant.

Baked goods aside, even unreciprocated smiling made me happy. Several studies have shown that faking a smile can make us feel better. So even on those few blocks when nobody smiled back, I enjoyed trying to reach them. After a while, I started making up a game: How many people could I make happier on this block? Maybe I could get more on the next street. Maybe I can get that guy in the plaid shirt; he looks way too sulky for a Saturday.

At the end of the day, I was so entertained that my housemate asked me if something good had happened today. As a Type A perfectionist who meticulously plots and analyzes her own mood, I’m always shocked by the large influence such a tiny action can have on our minds.

So friends, we’ve spent long enough pointedly ignoring each other for social convention. Why not spend the day pointedly noticing each other? Try this challenge : How many people do you think you can get to smile on one block? After all, when you give happy, you get happy.

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