When you’re smiling
…the whole world smiles with you. This is the opening line by Louis Armstrong, though he did not write the lyrics (credits go to: Larry Shay, Mark Fisher & Joe Goodwin for that).
Have you ever tried this theory? Could they be right? Is it in fact true that when we smile to one another we do emit a sort of radiance? Maybe one similar to the warm tones of Louis’ trumpet? In a society where individualism and independence are placed on the pedestal, is it possible that when we change some of our simplest habits that others can also be affected by this? I think so.
Further to my last post about How to greet someone you’ve just met I’ve been trying to change my habit of smiling towards others recently, to see if it does indeed make any difference. It has been harder than I anticipated. Before, when walking past a stranger (I prefer the phrase a friend you haven’t met yet, but that’s a bit longer to say – maybe it should be just an un-met?) I do what I’ve seen many do; a sort of squeeze of the lips and maybe a gentle nod in their direction. A movement, so subtle that implies warmth, yet at a distance; acceptance but without an invitation. Let’s spend a moment analysing these moments.
You are walking past an un-met, you notice them glance your way as you are looking toward them, the two of you lock eyes for a moment and you are unsure whether to acknowledge each other – “Oh no, they’ve seen me!” You’re nervous, unsettled, anxious; all in a split second before you must make the decision of how to navigate this moment. You have a few options: firstly, you could ignore the whole thing (as so many of us do) just keep walking, either lowering your head or just turning away. Alternatively, continue to look toward them and allowing the whole thing to just pass – I find this is the creepiest. Secondly, you could speak to them; generally in the form of a “hello” or “hi”. This, however, takes a lot of courage and will-power, whilst risks being an action inviting unwanted attention from (and for) the recipient of the greeting (I find this especially the case when in a bar), but also from others close-by who may potentially look at you as being odd or overly friendly. Thirdly, is the aforementioned squeeze of the lips; as described, slightly cold, distancing though friendlier than just walking past. And finally, the smile. A simple action. A friendly action. One that allows us to feel accepted and look accepting. An action that we generally, in the West, share only in intimate situations or at times where we feel at ease.
Smiling indicates happiness, this is an innate reaction in moments of joy, transcending culture (Kraut, R. & Johnston, R. 1979). It is also, as with our closest primate cousins, a sign of friendliness and a sign of non-hostility (Hooff, J. A. R. A. M. van. 1962). We thus use the smile, both consciously and unconsciously as a sign of warmth – something we also innately understand and feel.
The effects of smiling are heart-warmingly described by Alex Lickerman in a post on Psychology Today. Alex noticed the sullen looks on the cafeteria staffs’ faces as he would get his mid-lecture snacks. Wanting to bring some joy into his world he decided to smile and say “hello!” at them every time he would visit the cafeteria. Before long, the staff, instead of looking blankly at the till screens, would be smiling at Alex as he approached them. Thus, Alex discovered “the power of the smile” (2012).
This highlights the next part of the transaction of a smile: what the recipient does with it. We can bring in Mauss’ three obligations of exchange to analyse this. Marcel Mauss, in his seminal book The Gift (1990 ) highlighted three obligations of exchange: “to give, to receive, to reciprocate” (1990 , p.39, original emphasis). Here we could say that once we have locked eyes with someone we have commenced an exchange, you can either go through with the transaction or deny it. Thus an obligation to ‘give’ the first greeting takes place: a smile, a nod, a word. The recipient must acknowledge this greeting with warmth and humility, accepting the humanity of the donor. In order for this to be made clear a greeting must be offered back – to not offer a greeting back would be to deny that person their humanity. The reply, like in Mauss’ examples of North American potlatch, would normally be expected to be of similar quality or better. An initial nod in someone’s direction would warrant a smile; a smile in turn may get a ‘hello’. This way, both parties have been acknowledged and can be happy that their exchange was successful. Unlike Mauss’ analyses there is no further requirement for reciprocation after this initial exchange, unless one finds oneself crossing paths with that person again; here as before, it would be rude to just give a nod if a ‘hello’ was given to you prior. It is at this point where once again, the gift from the other must be returned with interest. A ‘hello’ received should be a ‘hello’ back, preferably with a smile. What is interesting however, is that all in all we just tend to ignore one another, shying away from exchanges of humanly warmth and kindly greetings.
There may be a few reasons we don’t smile at each other. Through self-observation I’ve noticed that I sometimes simply don’t feel like it. Compassion to those we don’t know is difficult to create; we learn throughout out childhood to not be friendly to strangers, only speak to those we know, not look at that person. We are taught out of natural compassion. Lickerman cites that Ramanchandran, in his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, describes how one must feel like smiling before one can genuinely smile. Though, other studies have shown that smiling can in fact be a predeterminate for increased joy. (See an interesting TED talk by Ron Gutman – did you know “one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate” (2011)). Through meditation & other techniques, compassion is something we can re-learn, allowing ourselves to be in someone else’s shoe is a vital skill to be able to navigate kindly through the world.
Until recently, I was living in London. It is common knowledge to any Londoner that you do not speak to anyone, anywhere when navigating through the city. It would be an unwelcome approach on peoples, already limited, personal space. Now being out of London, in Sussex I have noticed a difference in that, even bus stops are a friendlier space, having spoken to many (previously) un-mets waiting for the bus. As I try to change my habits, I have realised that a simple act can have the most profound results on my emotional state, mental health, and physical well-being. In the past 3 weeks of my ‘smile experiment’ I have felt happier, more energetic, and more awake. How will you feel when you smile at others?
Maybe the whole world does smile with us?
Keep smiling and keep reading.
Thank you (>‿◠)
Gutman, R. (2011) The hidden power of smiling. [Online] Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_gutman_the_hidden_power_of_smiling#t-327701 [Accessed 21 Oct 2016]
Hooff, J. A. R. A. M. van. (1962) Facial expressions in higher primates. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London. 8. 97-125.
Kraut, R. & Johnston, R. (1979) ‘Social and emotional messages of smiling: An ethological approach’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 37(9). pp. 1539-1553.
Lickerman, A. (2012) Smiling at Strangers. Psychology Today. [Online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201202/smiling-strangers [Accessed: 21 Oct 2016]
Mauss, M., 1990 . The Gift. Translated by W.D. Halls. London: Routledge.
Photo Credit: Barney Moss, Flickr