Friday, January 11, 2013

Smiling at Strangers.

I read some time ago that people feel more optimistic about life when strangers make eye contact with them. Scientists have found that people who live in large cities where there is little to no eye contact tend to feel more isolated. A small gesture, such as making eye contact or smiling quickly, can make a huge impact.




It reminded me of a story I read years ago in The Art of Happiness. Dr. Howard Cutler was exploring the mind of the Dalai Lama in order to find how the rest of us could be happier. As Cutler describes him, the Dalai Lama is always smiling, laughing or talking to people. Cutler noticed that when people were around the Dalai Lama, they too ended up smiling and laughing.




One incident in particular has stayed with me. Cutler describes the Dalai Lama waiting for an elevator in his hotel. The Dalai Lama turned to a housekeeper who was standing there and started talking to her. At first she appeared someone startled, but then as he asked her where she was from and spoke with her about her life, she clearly brightened up.

The next day the housekeeper was there waiting for him with another housekeeper. He greeted both of them warmly and spoke with them. The next day after that there were more housekeepers, and more and more each day until the end of the week there was a long line of housekeepers waiting to greet the Dalai Lama with smiles on their faces.

I found that absolutely profound. The Dalai Lama does not ignore the person standing next to him, even if it's a stranger. Now I know you and I are not the Dalai Lama and perhaps we won't get the same reception that he would get. But for many people, the Dalai Lama may be an odd-looking figure. What with his flowing robes and his foreign accent, some people might be put off by him. I'm not going to accept that as an excuse for me not to behave as he does.




You see, I think we all want to be seen. We want to be recognized as a fellow human being. We crave understanding. I know all of that may not be contained in the briefest of smiles or a quick flash of eye contact. But perhaps the essence of it is? Maybe that's what scientists discovered in the people who lived in places where not even the least hint of humanity is recognized and shared as a matter of course.

I know it might seem dramatic, but I do believe the little things count. Hell, I even believe I can make a difference in the world. Ridiculous, I know. But I've been making eye contact with people for the past six months. I even give them a quick smile. I mean, I don't flash my teeth or anything. I don't want them to think I'm a freak and let's not forget I'm an introvert by nature. This is a real stretch for me. But I find it makes me feel better about the world.




Even the act of smiling, however brief, seems to lighten my psychic load. I'm not much of a smiler. I'm more of an accidental scowler if you must know. But when I make eye contact with people and I force myself to give them a quick smile, it changes my mood. Just a touch. And sometimes, I'd say about 50 percent of the time here in Metro Detroit, people smile back.

And when that happens? I'll be damned. I do feel an extra spring in my step.

Who knew? Sometimes it's good to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. Now let's hope I don't get mugged.

Just kidding!

37 comments:

  1. well see now, I always make eye contact with people out in the real world... but I have to admit, it's more of a cynical habit than a friendly one, but I do smile too. My dad (the original cynic, from where I got all my cynical powers) always taught me to be aware of my surroundings, and so that requires looking in people's eyes to spot any malevolence. I added the smile myself. Must be my sweet, wonderful mother rubbin' off on me too.

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    1. I agree it's best to be aware of your surroundings. Looking up and around can help you do that, even if you just so happen to smile while you're doing it. It's nice that you got a little of both of them.

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  2. I'm sitting at a bagel shop with a buddy and he was literally just telling me about how one of his clients (he is a property manager) is being an asshole about stuff with a renter and that it would be so much better for everyone to just be nice and move on. He said this is going to come back and bite him in the ass. If he'd just let it go, everyone would be happy. And then I got an email alerting me that you posted this blog. Crazy timing!!!!!!!

    You are writing my kind of stuff lately - thanks!!!!

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    1. Maybe because the book I'm working on is so dark? My poor brain needs a little lift.

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  3. Having recently moved from urban to semi-rural, I know it's much easier to smile and make eye contact when not worried that the recipient might thump me rather than smile or say the you.

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    1. Ha. I guess it's good to expect the best of people, provided you're not in imminent danger.

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  4. I love smiles.

    I need to take your advice here... I think it may help alleviate my stress.

    Great post.

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  5. when we were in mexico and had a friendly exchange with a mexican trying to get directions he ended our contact with a comment that i absolutely love, have a beautiful life amigo. with a smile. it was so warm and sibncere. i wil never forget it.big smile to you mandy. great postthank you

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  6. So true, and such a good reminder. We are about to add "SMILE" to the job descriptions of the volunteers who operate our not-for-profit carousel. They must enforce safety rules, which annoys some riders.

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    1. No one will be smiling if there is a carousel mishap.

      ;-p

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  7. We are wintering in an RV resort in Arizona. As we walk down our little street, everyone smiles and waves - in vehicles or on foot. It's wonderful.

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    1. That's pretty cute.

      It reminds me of the Wrangler wave. When I owned Jeep Wranglers, I felt like I was in a secret society of friendly people. Wrangler owners always hold their fingers up while holding the steering wheel at other Wrangler owners.

      It doesn't work with the other Jeep models. I've tried.

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    2. we call it the dirt road wave

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    3. Yes! People in Oklahoma and Texas do that with pick-up trucks in small towns too. If it's someone you're not fond of, you can just do a quick chin nod. Someone should write a guide to small-town greetings. There's a strict, but unwritten code of etiquette.

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  8. The minute I started reading this post, I was grinning. I love the housekeeper story! That's so cute!

    I don't know how long, but I've been a stranger-smiler for many years. Purely selfishly. It makes ME feel good to smile at people - even if they don't smile back. Thanks for explaining to me why I like doing it!

    (Love the new pic, by the way ;)

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  9. You are so right about this. We need to smile more, it less tiring to smile anyway.

    eypolapol.tumblr.com

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  10. I try to smile, but when I'm not feeling it, I do a silent hi and nod. My cousin though, she gives a full-on hello to everyone she passes. It's embarrassing, frankly. I mean, really, how rude.

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  11. I was a big smiler back in the day. All the time. Shy, but really open, looking to connect with everything and everyone in the world. Then, somewhere in my mid-late 20s, I got really overly protective. Nothing good comes to a hopeful young woman who walks around smiling, I thought.

    I'm not so young and vulnerable anymore though. A few years ago my husband saw me walking down the street and said I was positively scowling. "What the hell happened to you?" he said.

    I don't know. Maybe I'm busier or more defensive these days or a combination of both, but I meet fewer people, both the good and the bad. I'd like to change that. The good I'd like to befriend and the bad I'm strong enough to handle now. Great post again!

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  12. I remember when I was just a young fresh thing recently moved to New York City and being told to stop smiling at people.
    They would generally look startled then smile back, my companion probably thought I was flirting or would be mistaken for being a flirt. Who knows, I would rather look at a smiley faced flirt than some glum sad sack standing on the corner.
    I smile anyway- always have, always will and you know what , The Dali Lama is right .. almost always when you smile, someone else will smile too.
    And God knows, I would rather see a street full/room full of smiling people than the dreary glum suspicious folks that I see now and then ..

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  13. Marvelous post....and so true--when I'm with my husband! lol Seriously though, I've had entirely too many times when making eye-contact and smiling at a stranger led to that "stalker in the grocery store" situation, freaks me out every time.

    I then thought it was quite safe to just smile at women. Did you know that long auburn haired six foot tall women with big feet and wide shoulders are the equivalent of a lesbian dreamboat? I have many gay friends that did NOT tell me this....and there are two women at my local market who are CERTAIN I'd like it if I tried it. *sigh*

    So now I smile from my car. I'm still surprised at how many people seem thrilled to smile and wave back--just going to work has become almost a game, "how many people can I make smile." Sometimes I headbang and air guitar it out just to make someone laugh....

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  14. I sat here thinking for a minute about who I smile at, if anyone. Women, children and old people. That's it. I rarely even make eye contact with men. And I have no idea why. Unlike Chantel, I've never had the privilege of being grocery store stalked...or any kind of stalked for that matter.
    About 80% smile back, the kids being the toughest critics. Maybe they don't like my smile.
    Speaking of which...that picture is just plain adorable.

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    1. Haha. Thank you. I didn't think "adorable" would be the first word that came to mind...

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  15. Where I live, when you smile at a man on the street, odds are he will just smile back .
    They are more at ease with that here in Argentina :-)

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  16. Ha! Your photo makes me laugh. I have noticed sincerity translates- tired smiles receive scowls, beaming smiles receive startled smiles.
    (In New York they get you helpful, loud New Yorkers who don't smile but do shout nice things like, "Just take the water! You'll dry up out there!")

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  17. LOVE SMILING! No seriously, it does work. I realized it was working on me before I started passing on the smile. When I'm feeling down and a stranger shows me some teeth, I automatically go up a notch. Keep smiling!

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  18. OK, first of all, even making that smile you're still a lot prettier than I am, but I guess if you can go around smiling at people in Detroit then maybe I can give it a shot in Memphis. If we both get killed then we'll know it was a mistake. If one of us lives then it's 50/50 and worth more experimentation. And if I ever visit Detroit and I see you, I'm so totally smiling at you. And you're going to think "who is this CREEEEEEPY guy smiling at me?!"

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  19. Some time back I decided to smile warmly at people. Strangers, friends, everyone I met. I would smile as warmly as I could at them, for them because sometimes it is the only good thing that may happen to them on that day. You just never know what someone is going thru. A warm smile doesn't cost you anything but it can be a huge gift for the person receiving it. Bless them with that. Hugs to you for reminding me of this Mandy. Dalai Lama or not, we can all make a difference in this world.

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  20. I love the Dalai Lama.

    His face is contagious to me.

    I love coming to your blog.

    I feel like you are a good friend, someone on my wavelength, who understands what I wish the world were like.

    Thank you.

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  21. well i love the picture of YOU!

    i have conflicted feelings about this. sometimes i radiate LEAVE ME ALONE, and sometimes i really mean it. then again, sometimes i chat with strangers in elevators and on the streets. sometimes people want to talk to me, even if they don't know me. i am moody and fickle, so approacher beware. LOL! but i'll take a smile over a scowl if i had to choose!

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