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When You Smile, Does Your City Smile Back?

Posted Sep 23 2011 4:31pm

Smile in the CitySmile and the whole world will smile with you. Or will it? Living in both New York and Boston, I’ve grown accustomed to certain cultural norms. For instance, north-easterners are known for telling it like it is…being somewhat abrupt… being a bit aggressive …and keeping to ourselves. To many, these may not sound like overly attractive qualities, but it is what it is, and I’ve grown to understand it as “normal” where I live.

For the last five years, my mom has been snowbirding to northern Florida, and as a result, we’ve visited the area quite a bit. I’m somewhat ashamed to say it took us by surprise as to how friendly people are in the South. Not only would they actively say “hello,” they would wave from their moving vehicles to say hi as you walk on the sidewalk. They smile. They are friendly and they tend to go out of their way to be pleasant. Although it usually takes a day to adjust, my husband and I typically find ourselves actively saying hello, and feeling good about it. We felt like all around happier, better people.

When communicating this difference in geographies to a friend, she professed that even though people won’t say hello in the Northeast, they actually want to. She went onto say that when she says hello and smiles at people, they usually respond in kind…almost relieved that someone made the “awkwardness” go away. Curious about her theory, I decided to put it to the test. During a morning jog around the Charles river, I decided I would actively look each passerby straight in the eye and smile as they neared. It didn’t matter if they were jogging, biking, walking, or male or female, I held fast to this action. This is what I found:

  • 50% of those who passed by refused to make eye contact, either ignoring me or looking down at the ground
  • 25% of those who passed by would look at me until the very end and then would look away at the last minute, no smile returned
  • 10% of those who passed by would hold their gaze, but would never smile
  • 10% of those who passed by would look at me at the last minute and would slightly smile (sometimes you wouldn’t even see it)
  • 5% of those who passed by smiled…comfortably

A bit disappointing. Now, what is interesting is that my running path is basically a loop where you tend to pass people twice. So, I had an opportunity to make a second attempt with many of these individuals. This is what I found:

  • Some of those who ignored me or looked away the first time, actually looked at me the second time, but never smiled
  • Some of those who looked away last minute the first time, held the gaze and half smiled or smirked the second time
  • Some of those who kept their gaze but wouldn’t smile the first time, smiled the second time
  • Everyone who smiled the first time at the last minute, smiled the second time with a little laugh as if to say, “yeah, I know I didn’t REALLY smile last time, but here I am now!”
  • And the two people who actually smiled the first time without any hesitation, actually smiled BIGGER and said a “hi” the second time around ( and it felt great! )

It is difficult when you are surrounded by non-smilers or non-smile initiators to break through with a big old friendly smile, but it seems that making the effort is well worth it. It felt great to get those who reluctantly smiled the first time around to happily smile the second time. And it seemed as though they appreciated it as well. So, next time you feel shy or awkward being friendly and open, I suggest you take the chance. It might do wonders for your own personal wellbeing, and you might even make someone else’s day too!

Do you find that your city smiles? Do you actively smile at strangers?

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