I grew up in the greater Seattle area. As kids, my mom always took us on the wooded hike down to Meadowdale Beach. I have a clear memory of being young and first hearing her say hello to other hikers as we passed them. I remember getting a strange feeling about this, like I was confused why she was saying hi to strangers. It was then that I learned that it’s just something you do on trails, and eventually I felt cool to say hello to others. To this day, no matter how many times I say hi to fellow hikers, I always think of my mom.
When I’m alone and walking, especially along a stretch of trail or sidewalk, and I cross paths with a person, it feels natural to at least acknowledge each other’s presence with a nod or a smile or a hello. Something. Anything.
Despite the fact that I learned to greet my fellow trail-mates while growing up in Seattle, I have to say I now feel like Seattleites are not very friendly. Not unkind or mean or rude, but unfriendly. I think it’s just the culture and the normal way of doing things here that are perhaps different than where I was living in the warm breeze of Southern California beach towns. You know, the whole closer you get to the equator, the warmer the people thing. I think there is something to that.
Upon my return to Seattle, I started walking a length of the Burke Gilman Trail just near my house. I walk this route often several times a week, and it doesn’t seem to get old. It’s my go-to walk, the one I usually complete first thing in the morning with coffee in hand or just after work when the sun is going down over the marina. The water has always centered me, and it is a great way to start or end the daylight. When I first walked this cement path, I would look at each person I passed with a smile, only to feel defeated and sad when they didn’t even look at me. It felt like rejection. Like when you get dolled up for a certain person and they don’t even say hello. Or when you clean the house for someone and they don’t even notice it. I started to get down about it. I’d prepare for the next person as I saw them coming towards me, our paths inevitably moving closer and closer to each other. I’d get nervous. I’d start wondering at what distance from each other I should move my eyes to their face in hopes to have an act of acknowledgement between us. I decided I’d change the culture. I decided I’d be the one person to say hello with a smile, and eventually others would pass it on as they walked by their fellow passers. But with each person passing, my “hi” went more and more unanswered, and I began to feel strange for saying hello and smiling. Like I was weird. I felt defeated. So I stopped doing it. I became unfriendly. I melted into my new culture. I’d choose to not look at someone’s face because it began to feel awkward and strange to acknowledge them, even on an empty sidewalk, where we could have been the only two human beings in the world.
When I got back from my recent trip to the Northeast, I resumed my walks through the marina. On the first day, something strange happened. Every single person was looking straight at me, smiling and saying hi or nodding their head. Like every single person. It was so prevalent of an experience during this hour walk that I couldn’t help but notice it. I felt like the universe was playing a trick on me. And I was so happy. I smiled back. I initiated other smiles. People were flashing me smiles. Heads were nodded in my direction. I felt like Andy Griffith walking through Mayberry. What the heck happened?
My first thought was that I had just come from New York City and was going through temporary culture shock which made me think anyone anywhere besides NYC was friendly, and that it would eventually subside. I was sure in a week I’d be back to the same narrow faced, cold stares. But this didn’t happen. The smiles and nods continued.
I now think it has something to do with myself. Yes, I’m sure that the interactions of fellow joggers and walkers and bicyclists on the boardwalk of San Diego will be different than those that take place on chilly, city trails lined with fallen leaves. That’s just a fact, even though I don’t like it much. So my first impressions when I moved to Seattle were striking because they were strikingly different from where I had just come. As those first impressions mellowed out and normalized, I began to feel annoyed with what I was experiencing and wanting to change it. Hence my “smile at everyone on purpose phase”. I was focusing more on the lack of smiles than the actual smiles I did get. And I was smiling for the direct intent to get the other person to smile back. They were like eggs I wanted so badly to crack. Chisel a grin into the stone face. It became a game to me. How many hellos can I get today? Now I can’t help but wonder if I was transparent. My attempts at making it natural and normal were actually unnatural and awkward. I wasn’t smiling because I was happy. I was smiling because I wanted to see someone else smile in order to make me happy.
Finally I gave up and accepted the lack of smiles. I accepted my new culture. I didn’t get upset when I didn’t see a returned smile or hear an echoed hello. I relieved myself of expectations and my attempts to feel warm and fuzzy based on someone else’s facial expression. When I returned from my trip, I was light. I was reset. I was beaming and happy. I was smiling inside and outside. When I walked that trail that first time since the trip, I was just smiling in general, at no one in particular. Just because I was happy. Maybe that cheerful demeanor and purposeless smile was the very thing that attracted smiles from others. Others picking up on my energy and me picking up on theirs.
The other day as I was journeyfooting, I thought of something funny and laughed to myself. I felt myself sub-consciously purse my lips together in an attempt to hide my smile, like others might wonder what’s so funny. Might wonder if I have voices in my head. And then I thought “that is RIDICULOUS! Why am I trying to prevent myself from smiling?” What, I was alone on a busy path with cyclers and joggers, and for some reason that made me feel silly showing laughter? I’ve seen others do this too. When we are alone in public, we contain our physical expression of happiness as though it shouldn’t be shared with strangers. As though they need to know our reason for wanting to smile. Do we really need a reason? A reason to smile?
And have you ever walked by someone who was extra smiley, when their hello seemed to be sung rather than spoken, and thought “uhhh, why are they so… so.. so HAPPY?” (If so, then maybe you’re too unhappy yourself.) No, it lifts us up a bit. Those are always the types of people that put a smile on my own face, as though they are the special happiness-carriers of the world that are simply here to remind others of all the goodness around. Maybe it’s the quirky bum I pass on the sidewalk that seems to embody the wise spirit of Ghandi. Or the old man on the street corner drawing my attention to a white owl on the rooftop which no one else even noticed. The jogging girl who looks about my age and her kind smile that makes me think we would be best friends. The woman walking who I think could be an older version of myself and by the look in her eyes, I believe I remind her of her younger self.
A genuine smile is an invitation. An invitation to openness. Imagine it’s a cold February morning, but the sun is coming up and the sky is clear. You’re strolling down a walking path and another early riser is walking towards you. Your eyes meet. The person pulls the corners of his mouth across his cheeks and says “hi, good morning!” A beautiful exchange that leaves you feeling even more joyful, and you are left with a bounce to each step. Now imagine the same path and the same person walking towards you. You look up to meet eyes and theirs are staring straight ahead, almost as though they are intentionally not looking at you. I mean come on, they gotta notice you. You two are the only ones around! And you pass by without anything, as though the blank stare was a concrete wall.
Sometimes it feels awkward to smile at someone out of the blue, or to even say hello when it isn’t for a specific purpose. But why? There is a special feeling as I’m out journeyfooting through the beautiful world, wherever it may be, and my world crosses with the world of another person out there enjoying the same beautiful world. Just the five seconds of eye contact with a complete stranger and his or her warm face can feel like you just shared a meaningful conversation with a close friend. A shared moment with someone you’ll probably never share anything with again.
I no longer let lack of smiles make me blue. I don’t focus on the non-smiles, but accept them, which actually allows me focus on the smiles. Hell, we can’t all smile at every person. But I let myself smile as often as I can, no longer because I am trying to make anyone else smile, but because I just want to smile. And really, that’s when it usually seems to be the case that I end up seeing the most smiles.