Every time I go running in my neighborhood I play a little game called “The Smile Game.” The rules are simple and anyone can play.
Whenever I’m approaching someone who is facing me, I smile. Usually I go for teeth, but not every time. I do this as a social experiment, and because I like to cheer people up. It’s really the only time I’m an unbridled optimist.
Sometimes I go a little crazy and actually speak to these strangers, but it’s rare. About a month ago I was just cresting a steep hill that left me winded and exhausted. On my way day down, I passed a man who was gasping for breath but still running up the hill, and I smiled at him. He smiled back through asthmatic heaves, and I felt a burst of camaraderie with him so I said, “Good work!” He didn’t breathe any easier because of my encouragement, but he did manage to say thanks, and for a moment it was like we were on the same team.
I’m working up my courage to put my hand out for a high-five, but the rejection from that would be too much to recover from. Can you imagine a stranger jogging toward you and suddenly her hand is raised to eye-level and she’s smiling at you? It would either be awesome or terrifying. Or it could completely backfire, and make men believe I’m using the high-five as a conversation starter. Shudder.
I have learned a myriad of things about humanity through this game.
1. Unless I smile first, no one will smile at me. This is fact. I think I have recorded maybe two unsolicited smiles and they were on particularly sunny days, so they really can’t count because good weather warps Seattleites’ mental states.
2. In general, women my age are the worst. They almost always fall into the non-eye-contact category. The fierceness with which they refuse to look at me makes me feel like we’re competitors in the national running championships. It always boggles my mind, so I continue to smile.
3. Those who appear too shocked to react before I pass are people who are jaded and used to being overlooked in life. They want to smile at strangers, but they are sick of being rejected and therefore never do.
4. Those who never make eye contact, and therefore have no idea that I am grinning like an idiot, I forget quickly. These people are clearly on their own road and do not need a cheerful encounter with me.
5. Those who smile back are fantastic, wonderful people who make me feel like I’m a unicorn riding a rainbow.
6. Those who obviously see me and yet do not give even a hint of a smile are jerks. Period.
Sometimes I wonder if Kirkland’s lack of friendliness is really just geography. Mike’s grandparents, who live in Iowa, sent us a subscription to their favorite local magazine, “Our Iowa.” Its pages are bursting with state-wide pride about their friendliness, with little quotes from cartooned farmers scattered over the pages that say, “There are no strangers in Iowa, just friends you haven’t met yet!” They have little inside jokes like “You know you’re an Iowan if you wave to people in other cars that you don’t even know.”
Seattleites don’t do this. We don’t wave from cars. You’re lucky to get a wave even if we do know you.
I think that’s part of why people don’t smile on the street here. We already know no one is going to throw any love our way, so we just stick to our mission and move on. If Iowa has t-shirts that say “Iowa — America’s Front Porch,” Seattle should have t-shirts that say, “Seattle — America’s Closed Front Door.”
But that doesn’t mean I have to pull my cap down around my eyes and stare at the concrete. I’m going to keep grinning, not to give the impression that running is effortless, but to give the impression that acknowledging people is. The Seattle rain is chilly enough; we don’t need countenances to match.
If all else fails I can always purchase one of the many bumper stickers available in this month’s Our Iowa. I’m leaning toward the one that says, “Iowa Rocks!” with the giant ear of corn furiously strumming a guitar. When you think about it, it’s really no odder than a manic redhead running down the street accosting strangers (who are just friends I haven’t met yet).