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).
7 responses to “Corn People vs. Coffee People”
Pardon me as I gather my breath. Unicorn riding a rainbow?! That is brilliant. I need to use that more often. I play the smile game too, I just never knew it was a game and never knew the psychology behind it. 🙂
It seems like there are always people walking, running, or playing up and down the streets of our neighborhood, and they always wave and say hi when they walk by our house, and i always wave back and say hi. sometimes I’m first, sometimes they say it first. Depends on if they’re in a conversation and I don’t want to interrupt. Our first week in this house, we met a family on a walk, and they happen to live one block away, and their last name is Hiller. Millers meet Hillers. Isn’t that wonderful!?
You are one lucky lady! You must live in Mr Roger’s neighborhood!
People always smile at me. I think it is because they think I am smiling at them, but really that is just me trying not to die breathing through my mouth and grimacing as I pound the pavement.
I love this….And if you never get to the high five you can always just raise a finger and say “Hi, Jake!” Mike’s grandpa would be proud…and I’m sure yours would be, too.
Oh, Love, how did I miss this BRILLIANT post! After another long day of writing (alone in Anacortes), this made me laugh out loud and now I’m even more excited to squeeze you on Friday! Get up here so we can laugh and I can pick your delightful brain 😉 You remind me of my own “grocery game chronicles” where amidst iPod use and focused list-checking, someone always asks me to help them find something…
I’m catching up on your blog – always enjoyable! So Aaron’s also from Iowa (his dad’s side of the family) and tells this funny story about when his mom moved to Iowa with his dad. Aaron’s dad would ‘wave’ to strangers driving by, car after car after car (as Iowans do….) and his mom, thoroughly perplexed at her husband’s seeming popularity, finally turned to him in the car and said, “You know EVERYONE!!!” lol….I always loved that story!