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Jenn's main blog

Break through the smile barrier

Jenn Shallvey

I was out walking today in one of my favourite places - Manly and Shelley Beach in Sydney. I thought I would try an experiment. I decided to walk today purposely engaging each person I passed with eye contact and a smile. At the same time I chose to listen to my Ipod purposely restricting the audible aspect of any potential encounter.

What happened is amusing...

My experience...

I felt fantastic. The entire time I held a state of happiness and joy. I unconditionally offered this to each person I encountered. I did not take it personally whether or not they replied. I paid attention to the types of people and which ones I smiled easier at and which ones I had to work at. I noticed how tempting it can be to look away or down at the ground the closer you get to the approaching person. I also noticed that by holding the smile and the intention of simply offering this basic gesture there was no need to look away.

Other people's reaction…

Well this is where it gets interesting. No surprise here if you live in a big city; maybe so if you live in the country. My hit rate for getting a return smile was only 35% (yes I measured it). My hit rate for eye contact was at about 80%. So people looked back at me but did not smile.

What I noticed about the situations...

- People who were fully engaged in what looked like a meaningful conversation did not look at me. Great!

- People on their own appearing to be in a relaxed state themselves looked back at me and smiled. No distractions.

- People exercising intensely stayed focus their experience. Exercise is a ritual and for some almost like meditation so makes sense.

- Older people who did look at me returned the smile before younger people did. Ok, so maybe its my age they responded to.



Other reflections

Though this is a one off experiment, I do not think this low return rate is an exception. It correlates nicely with my daily observations in public places. I find we frown or look serious more than we smile. You probably notice the same trend.

You may also notice how common it is today to rush around engaged in other conversations - whether on the phone, listening to an Ipod or texting a message on our Blackberry. We don't notice what is happening around us - who passes us by – the missed opportunity to connect. We instead remain consumed by our own internal world, an island in sea of humanity.

I do agree that sometimes we need to retreat and be by ourselves. This is part of our own process of reflection and reconnecting to ourself.

So what does looking and smiling at strangers have to do with going there and having the conversation you have to have?

Intention. The start of having a conversation that works for us and goes there is the intention to do so. We have to be willing to make the effort, break down barriers, overcome fear, pay attention to the other person and engage.

Interaction. If our only interaction with a human being is a technical device then we are missing the foundation of getting into real conversation. We experience who we are through expression, feedback, questions and other perspectives.

Insight. When we engage in real conversations with other human beings we can experience insight and learning. It is in this context that we get the ‘aha moments’ and clarity we seek. We find context in the reality of the world around us.

Intention for interaction gets insight.

So what can you do?

Well for what its worth here are a few suggestions to try on.

1. Next time you are on the bus or the train try smiling at the people you sit next to. Even better say hello.

2. When you walk by a person see if you can look at them instead of at the ground. Smile.

3. In your next meeting at work start your preparation by smiling and greeting each person.

4. In a lift actually look at people and smile.

I know each person has a different threshold but just imagine what it would be like to walk around seeing a sea of happy faces rather than the glumness we get. And just think how good it will make you feel if you smile no matter what the other person does.

Let's go there...

Jenn