Caution: Oncoming Human

It started as an experiment. Last year, there was a period when I would go days without speaking to another person. There were also many days when I felt incredibly lonely, even when I was with people. It is a particular flavor of pain to feel lonely in the midst of others. So when I went running, I started smiling at people with whom I made eye contact. Partly because I was raised to be polite, but partly because it made me feel tethered, to something, in some small way. Research has shown that smiling, even forced, has been shown to lift mood. I figured I had nothing to lose.

One thing I learned from my experiment was that you really can’t predict who will smile back. Friendly-looking woman in Lululemon, power-walking towards you. Nope. Grumpy-looking older man with shoulder-length gray hair. Smiles. Good-looking hipster kid with headphones on. Head nod and smile. Nice!  I get it if you’re shy, having a really bad day (though for aforementioned reasons, that may be the best time to smile back) or having a moral dilemma as to whether or not to pick up the kid your dog just dropped off on the lawn (please do), but I find the following two reactions amusing/bewildering:

  • Stone Face: These are the folk who you smile at and get zero response. Nothing. This is LA, but not everyone indulges in Botox. Maybe they think I’m slightly crazy. That’s fair. Regardless of the reason, I did my part, and that’s the only part I can control. When I come across Stone Face, I feel silly for about a second but then move on, literally.
  • Invisible Blinders: These are the folk who make eye contact with you at a distance, but as the gap closes, they stare straight ahead as if they have whiplash and a mini office cubicle sitting on their shoulders. A variant I experienced yesterday: guy makes eye contact but just as we are about to be in the same linear plane, he turns to check himself out in a store window. Okay…that might be more LA than Botox.

By far, my experience has been positive. Valets are routinely nice and often smile first. Other runners usually reciprocate (the etiquette has actually come up in the Q&A section of running magazines) with an expression that says, “Hey, how can what we are doing be great and awful at the same time?” I’ve received the rare catcall; who couldn’t use a little ego boost when you’re running? Besides, if they are even remotely creepy, there’s motivation to pick up the pace.  Some people are surprised and give you the Late Smile, almost as they’re walking past you. Those are some of my favorites. In our technology-obsessed society, when so many walk with headphones on, while texting, or using an earpiece (it used to be if you were walking and talking without a companion, people might worry you had schizophrenia), it’s refreshing to have a moment with a total stranger. A brief acknowledgment that you are human, they are human, and that you live on the same planet.

My tally for last night’s run:

  • Non-smilers: 3 Two Invisible Blinders, One Stone Face
  • Mildly embarrassing, completely hilarious moment: 1 A girl walking her dog suddenly shouted “Hello!” at me. I was taken aback but said “Hi!” A millisecond later it became clear that she was answering a call on her earpiece. I had a good laugh. Reminded me of the time my friend waved at a guy in the dorm across the quad from ours. Only after he waved with his other arm did we realize he was putting on deodorant while looking out the window.
  • Smilers: everyone else
  • People on bikes: 2 This was new for me.  One was a cyclist (clipped in and in a unitard kit), stopped at an intersection.  The other was riding leisurely on a single-speed. I challenged the latter to race me to the end of the block. I’m pretty sure he let me win. But we both laughed and I got a little speedwork in.

So next time you see an Oriental Lady smile as she jogs past, smile back. Better yet, try the experiment yourself when you’re out for a run or stroll. I’d love to hear how it goes. You might just make someone’s day a tiny bit brighter. That someone might even be you.

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