By Emily A. Dause

Smiling at Strangers

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 post 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.  I argued I was invisible and forgettable, and he pointed out maybe I helped make myself that way — 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 . . . until 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. I needed to practice looking at and valuing people, instead of just giving a superficial glance or just seeing them as objects playing a function in my life.  (For more on this idea, see Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus by Paul Miller).

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 as 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 a while, 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 actually getting five people in a row to truly smile back. Shouldn’t I get extra points for that?

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 isolation.
  • 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 is like for them in that instant.
  • People are beautiful when they smile.  Smiling transforms people's faces, especially 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 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.  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 assignment for me doesn't really have an end.  Instead, since I've been "working" on this for a while, I do have some suggestions if you decide to try this yourself:

  • Slow down. Sure, there are times when we need to do things quickly.  But if you feel like that's true all the time, then maybe there's something else that needs to change (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 I once thought to make conversation with a complete stranger.  Many of these strangers are actually people working at a store I happen to be in.  These are some of the topics I've come up with:
    • The weather. Is it unusually cold? unusually nice? Is there 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. Most any female will launch into an explanation if you compliment them on their jewelry — and 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 (sporting event, upcoming holiday, news story, etc.) Once 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.

When I started this assignment, I had convinced myself I was invisible.  Now, I realize that feeling was primarily a result of my own choices.  These choices not only made me less noticeable to others, but, more importantly, made others less visible to me.  Sometimes I still slip into old habits, and sometimes it is genuinely difficult to work up a smile.  But when I make the effort to connect with strangers, even just for a moment, I am reminded that not only am I seen, but that I can help others feel seen, too.

My final suggestion: just try it.  I'd love to hear some of your stories when you do!

About the Author

Emily A. Dause received her B.S. in Elementary Education from Messiah College and her M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum from Penn State University.  She is a public school teacher and a freelance writer. Her writing appears in PRISM MagazineTeaching Children Mathematics, and her blog, sliversofhope.comYou can also follow her at Facebook or on Twitter.

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