Picture two different situations. In the first, you walk into a room where you find a large dog. You’re both startled, but the pooch stands up, tail wagging, and looks at you with wide eyes and an open mouth, its pink tongue slightly hanging out. In the second you walk into the same room, and encounter the same dog, but the mutt stays on the ground, staring up at you, unblinking, tail still, mouth closed, eyes unexpressive. Which situation would you rather be in? And what would you do differently in one room or the other?
I’m going to guess that you’ll feel a lot more comfortable in the first room. You might even walk up to the dog, or kneel down and call the pup over to you for a head-pat. The second dog hasn’t done anything mean or threatening, but you’re just left unsure, and will probably give that pooch a lot of space. No hugs, no pats, no ear-scratches, no tummy rubs. And who could blame you? After all, we have a lot of teeth!
I bring this up because of something I’m noticing about the people around me. So many are sad, scared, lonely, or frightened in this hectic world, and the one thing that can most easily ease their nervousness comes in too short a supply: Smiles.
Smiles work in the human brain just like those doggy behaviors I described. Babies learn when their eyes first focus that a smiling face means all sorts of good things – safety, warmth, food, and of course that most important one, diaper changes! (Sorry, little bit of doggy humor there! No, that most important thing for a baby, of course, is Love)
As children grow, smiles become, if anything, more important. Remember going to school and being greeted by a sweet warm smile from your teacher? And how that felt? And remember being greeted by another teacher’s scowl, or a blank face looking you over to judge you? And how that felt? And if you ever had to go to the hospital, how much safer and more confident you felt if the doctor or nurse gave you a friendly beaming, instead of just sternly focusing on your wound or illness?
And then, yeah, you knew I’d get to this, there’s that point when you start wanting someone, maybe of the opposite sex, to like you. Or let me rephrase that – when you care more about them liking you than ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD! And a smile from that special person can make your whole day, and not getting it leaves you just crushed.
Now of course there are mean smiles, cruel smiles, hateful smiles. We’ve all seen them. A sneer at you when you fail at something. A grin showing the glee someone feels over feeling better than you. Or, maybe worst of all, a fake “say cheese” pretending kindness while hiding bad intent.
And because of these, it makes sense to sometimes distrust a smile. Which is really sad.
Also, there’s the problem that giving smiles signals an openness, an availability. After all, what if that tail-wagging dog I described didn’t want to be petted? Its friendly “smile” pulled it into a situation it didn’t want at all, right? So I’m certainly not saying you should smile all the time, at everyone.
(In fact, this brings up a good point. Some dogs are actually frightened by people giving them big toothy smiles – they look like snarling fangs to them. Just as some people who’ve been attacked by angry dogs are scared when I run up and jump on them. Best to, with new dogs, keep your lips together in your enchanted grin. But with people, you can show all the teeth you like!)
All I want is for you to realize the incredible power you have, right there in the corners of your mouth. After all, with just the slightest use of those muscles, you can change lives.
Haven’t you had a time when you were really nervous, maybe before giving a report at school or playing a tough game in a sport, and someone’s smile gave you the confidence you needed to give it your best?
Or when you walked into a group of strangers, hoping to feel welcomed, and someone’s snarl or disinterested blank expression left you devastated, and unable to join the conversation?
And haven’t you come to someone at a time you felt full of remorse and guilt, praying they’d accept you. And when you got their warm smile, your whole world opened up, knowing you had escaped a cold future of disdain?
You know that old song that goes “I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do,’ They’re really saying ‘I love you’?” Well I’d argue that a handshake and a casual greeting are fine, but it’s really the smile that accompanies them that says those three beautiful words. (Funny, since the guy who sang it arguably had the brightest smile in the history of your species!)
Yes, smiling is a way to say to a total stranger, “I don’t know you, but I give you love, to the degree I can.” Just like a tail-wag and a sniff.
Now these days, where I live, there’s so much tension around. The weather’s crazy, politics is just upended, and then there’s the issue of the holidays. Everyone’s in a rush to get to parties, do their shopping, or make a little more money to get through this time. And while all that should be happy, I just see angry drivers, impatient arguments, and general resentment all over.
And what can change that? Well nothing can completely fix it, but I do find that a friendly smile does more than just about anything else.
Try it. When walking down that cold rainy sidewalk, smile at the person walking toward you. When stepping aside to let more people in that crowded elevator, give them all a grin. And when you’re stuck in a gridlocked intersection, shine your best smile at the other drivers.
I think you’ll find that, in many cases, they laugh. Not at you, but with you. You see, your smile says to them “I know this situation is ridiculous, my friend, so bad it’s funny.” And that makes them see the humor in it too.
And while you both might be out spending a month’s salary on some special gift for some special someone, it might be that smile, and that laugh, that truly prove to be the best gifts you give all year. At least the most needed. At a very reasonable price!
Now again, sure, if you’re in a situation that doesn’t feel completely safe, and you think it might be best if you don’t smile, then that’s fine – there’s no need to. But I know what I’d hope for then. While you keep yourself more protected, and keep your face down, someone else there – someone more comfortable than you, more at ease – sees this, and gives you a big grin, telling you you’re safe and even liked.
And that, seeing that, you feel safe enough to give a nice small smile back. Or, for that matter, a giant grin!
After all, when we dogs wag our tails at you, we’re hoping for a reaction too. Maybe even a treat.
And smiling back is about as welcome as a slice of pizza!