Monday, February 13, 2012

The Smile at a Stranger Experiment.

If you've ever been smiled at by a complete stranger as you've been walking along the street, then you'll know how it can bring a little happiness into even the darkest of mornings. Awhile ago my wife told about a lady that always tried to do just that - to bring a little bit of joy into people's worlds by simply sharing a smile with them. Since these are free to dispense, I thought it might be an interesting social experiment to try and smile at a stranger for 14 days. I'll update the results as they occur...

Day 1:
This was the day when this slightly strange idea first occurred to me. I was travelling by train, up to London to freelance at The Good Agency. As I was thinking through how I would go about it and what sort of person I should select as my first 'test subject', I found myself being highly amused by the whole idea. So far, so good - even if the happiness had only spread to me so far, the idea was working.

Unfortunately, the more I thought about it, the more I couldn't help but smile. And so it was, that I got off the train with a huge grin wrapped around my face. I say 'unfortunately' because I think I must have looked a little odd as I weaved through a busy Waterloo station concourse, grinning from ear-to-ear. This also didn't help my mission – how could anyone know I was smiling at them if I was smiling all the time? And so once I had wrestled my grin back into the usual London grimace, I was ready. But my walk from the station to the Agency is only about six minutes long and I had wasted half of that looking like a freak. There was no time to lose, I had to find someone to smile at... anyone would do.

It was then that I found out how incredibly hard it is to actually smile, unprovoked at a complete stranger. Just as I thought my mission had failed before it had begun, a spotted a possible target. I tried to catch her eye, rolled out a slightly hesitant smile and... she completely ignored me.

Okay, so not a great first day success, but at least I had done it. This could only get easier.

Day 2:
As there was a weekend break between day one and day two, any confidence I had gained had long since vamoosed. Never mind. As I stepped off the train, this time I squashed the smile that was wriggling to escape until it was the right time to unleash it.

I missed several opportunities as I went down the escalators (mental note for tomorrow) and managed to leave the station with no success. And once on the streets there seemed to be a lack of any suitable 'Smilees'. However, just when I thought day two was going to be lost, I spotted a target. Okay, engage courage, mentally prepare and fire.

The smile that I finally managed to produce, was not the dazzling heart warming beacon of happiness that I had intended it to be. Instead, what I managed was a slightly twitchy smirk. Needless to say, it wasn't met with a great response. I believe that the slightly more mature women did indeed notice my efforts, but responded by dropping her eyes to the ground and hurrying on by. Perhaps I need to practice smiling or maybe the answer is to have a natural smile inducing 'happy thought', ready to load at the appropriate time. I'll try that tomorrow.

Day 3:
Some of you may be wondering why I'm going into London when I am meant to be studying. There are two reasons. Firstly, because it's half-term, so my house is busy. Secondly, my old company don't mind me studying at their offices as it means I'm on hand should they need some extra help – which I charge for of course!

Anyway, day three started with me reading the Book of Revelation on the train. As we approached Waterloo we got held up at a red signal. The train was packed and in that very odd commuter way was totally silent. And for whatever reason, the silence seemed louder than usual. And then someone's phone rang. She answered; we all listened. "Hello, yes, I'm fine thank you. No, no, I'm on the train at the moment, talking." I'm not entirely sure why she felt it necessary to state that she was 'talking' as we, and presumably the person she was talking to, all knew she was talking. I think it was panic. But this was the cue for Mr Inappropriate (me) to get the giggles. You know what it's like, total silence except for one lone voice and now you have the uncontrollable urge to burst out laughing. Honestly, I was in a pickle. I found my tummy sucking in and out with the effort to be quiet, I began to involuntarily gurn and I had to hide behind my hands – the person next to me was starting to look uncomfortable.

This was a good start (apart from ruining my reading of Revelation) as I now had my 'happy thought' which could be used to inspire day three's attempt to 'Smile at a Stranger'. Remembering yesterday's thought about the opportunities afforded by the escalator, I walked confidently through the concourse... only to hear the 'I'm talking' woman on her phone again apologising for the previous phone call as the train had been 'totally silent'. Ba-ha-ha-ha!!! "No! Now I can't stop laughing and it's too early! Stop! Ok, think sad thoughts, sad thoughts. Right, that's better. Now, to escalate!" But it was broken. And if you've ever walked down a non-moving escalator, then you'll know how challenging it can be. And so it was in a slightly stumbling fashion, that I spotted a potential 'Smilee'. Happy thought engaged and... fire smile. There it goes, not my best, but under the circumstances, I thought it pretty admirable.

The response? Total blank out. Yet again, my great Smile experiment had dished up a great serving of failure. But not to be deterred, a few moments later I let another one rip. Well, it wasn't so much of a rip, but rather a slow stretching of the mouth. Needless to say this was greeted with the usual response – eyes to the floor and vacant expression.

But I think I have figured out where I'm going wrong. What needs to take place is eye contact; establish a connection (yes, I'm looking at you), launch happy thought, and finally unleash the smile to end all smiles. We'll see.

Day 4:
My dear wife posted this on Facebook yesterday:

'A study in the Journal Psychological Science has revealed that momentary eye contact with a person, even if they are unknown to you, reduces stress levels, through 'human connection.' 
Daily Mail, 14th February 2012.
Thus, as I travelled in this morning, I felt somewhat encouraged in my quest to share a bit of joy into an otherwise dreary commute.

On the train from Chessington, I regularly pick up one of the many discarded copies of the Metro newspaper. Today's edition featured an article entitled, 'No longer love thy neighbour? Post it online…' According to the author, Jenni Marsh, neighbours no longer speak to each other about problems, but resort to writing 'humorous notes … which are ending up online'. One of the examples amused me, 'Your bass speakers are amazing. The bass is so rocking' that it shakes all of the buildings in the complex. We are all very impressed with your sound system. Don't even think about turning it down'. I hope my neighbours feel the same affection for my bass speakers. But it was another example that helped get the morning off to a good start, as one cheeky neighbour wrote: 'Did you guys move? Your wi-fi isn't working any more'. Now, you may not have found that funny, but I have to confess that I rather forgot myself and threw my head back, chortling to myself. It was only when I caught the surprised eye of the lady in the opposite row that I realised that I had just become one of those slightly odd people that laugh out loud on public transport. I did briefly consider that she could be today's Smilee – but if went wrong, it could be awkward as there's no escape. Nevertheless, the mood was set, today's smile was going to be a good one.

After disembarking, I was pleased to see the escalator was back to operational status. So, armed with today's wi-fi related 'happy thought', I lent slightly to the side of the person in front of me and started scanning for eye contact. And there it was, just a momentary catch, but enough time for me to whip out a quick a grin. And I know she noticed, because for a very brief moment she allowed a twitch of confusion to dance across her face before adopting the now customary blank face. But since I'd gone to all the effort of summoning up this grin, I wasn't about to let it go to waste. And so it was, that I managed to smile all the way down the escalator at every single person (including the gents!). And it was most comical to see, one-by-one, the momentary panic in people's faces, followed by 'the vacant stare' response. And so, as I descended, the grin grew wider and wider.

But I wasn't finished. As I skipped (metaphorically speaking you understand) along the streets, bolstered by my recent escapades, I noticed another potential Smilee. I searched for the eyes, as she averted them, and then out came the smile. Mine, not hers, but for a brief second I thought she might.

So, no outright success today, but I think I have an insight as to why… and I'll share that with you tomorrow...

Day 5:
Despite all my efforts, why is it proving so hard to get people to smile back? No doubt there are numerous reasons, but this may be the biggest. Let me explain...

About a year ago, I made a shocking discovery. We all have a variety of expressions that are appropriate for different occasions. And we can employ these expressions to a lesser or greater degree. For example, if we take the simple smile, I'm sure we're aware that not all smiles are equal. There is the sarcastic smile, the genuine smile, the forced smile, the polite smile, the over-the-top smile, the smirk, the grin, the teethy smile, the just-lips smile and the polite, acknowledgement smile etc. So what was my shocking discovery? That my polite, smile of acknowledgment, often used when passing colleagues in the corridors, was in fact no smile at all! I discovered it by chance, after I used it once and got no response. I therefore nipped into the gents and whilst looking in the mirror, replayed the smile. Now, it was always intended to be understated, but not non-existent. The implication being, that for most of my adult life people must have been thinking, 'How rude, he didn't acknowledge me at all!', when in fact I had always intended to convey a polite and courteous non-verbal acknowledgement.

This leads me to conclude that no matter which degree of smile I'm aiming for, they all probably lack the precise gusto intended. That combined with the fact that smiling at strangers is a rather tense and nervy exploit anyway – which no doubt has the effect of further dampening the smile – may mean that what I thought was an obvious and delightful smile, may have actually been coming across as a mere spasm of the lips. People may have even felt sorry for me, thinking I have some sort of nervous twitch. This then, could well be the reason why I haven't been able to achieve a reciprocal smile as yet – they simply don't realise I'm actually smiling.

This morning I had planned to rectify this by pulling out the most over-the-top, cheeky smile in my arsenal. However, for whatever reason, by the time I made it into Waterloo, the last thing I felt like doing was smiling. I tried, but my heart wasn't in it. And so another day of failure. I think that today, what I needed was to be on the receiving end of a smile… alas none were forthcoming.

Day 6:
Okay, I think I'm going to call this little experiment to an end, so today's update will be the last. It's not that I'll stop trying to spread a little sunshine by smiling at strangers, but just that I think the reporting of it has run it's course.

I'm still convinced that establishing eye contact prior to smiling is crucial in order to be noticed. But there lies the problem – commuters (myself included) seem to do everything possible to avoid eye contact with others. Today, even the trusty old escalator proved fruitless. I did manage to 'bless' a more mature lady with a hastily pasted on smile. She looked confused. I also, against my better judgement, smiled at a rather rough looking man – who did in fact maintain eye contact with me, but looked like he wanted to wring the smile off my face with his bare hands.

But that people don't want to make eye contact with strangers is understandable and probably pretty normal and wise. After all, if I wasn't forcing myself to smile at people, I would be just the same. In fact about a year or so ago, I happened to be in Wales, visiting my college. I had the chance to meet up with a good friend, Steve. We were walking from the college to a nearby curry house and were full of anticipation for the tasty meal that awaited us and were laughing and chatting as we caught up with each other's news in the way that good friends do.

As we walking and talking, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a person approaching from the opposite direction. And as you do, I did the quick, almost subconscious 'Do I know you scan' as we continued to chat. And since I didn't know the approaching person, I ignored her. Moments after she had passed, Steve interrupted my enthusiastic ranting, saying, "Sorry Matt, but did you know her?".
"Er, who? What? No, I don't think so... why?"
"Well it's just that she just gave you a huge beaming smile and so I thought you must know her!".
"Er... no, I don't thiiinnnk, sooooo" I said, craning my head around, starting to feel the creeping sensation that I'd just rudely ignored a fellow student. I checked with the only possible person it could have been the next day, to ensure no offence had been given. A slightly embarrassing undertaking...

"This is going to sound a little weird, but did you see me last night?"
"Erm, no I don't think so, why?" she replied. Her husband looked at me a little strangely. I then had to explain the absurd situation; the colour of my cheeks betraying my embarrassment.

What I'm trying to say in a long winded way, is that when out in public, people just don't expect to be smiled at. So even if the smile is the brightest and most genuine smile in the world, if it's not seen, it's wasted. But there have been times this week when I know my smile has been seen and although there has been no outward response, there will have been an inward one. And that, after all is the point. Not to panic people and make them think they have something unfortunate hanging out of their noses; or make them look behind themselves so see who I'm smiling at; but to create a little bit of good feeling, of sunshine and happiness on an otherwise dreary commute where everyone is too scared or miserable to  acknowledge they are surrounded by fellow human beings.

Well, I guess that brings my experiment to an end. Thank you for reading... and why not try smiling at  a stranger yourself? It's an interesting experience.

Next week's experiment is: 'The hug a stranger experiment' - people may miss a smile, but no one's going to miss that ;)

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