The day after Australia Day, I had an early start and a long day. It could have been annoying, or arduous, or boring, or tiring, or any of the above. But instead I used it to see if I could make 10 strangers smile. Here’s what happened.
The idea of making 10 strangers smile isn’t my own idea. It’s Jeffrey Gitomer’s idea. For a number of years I’ve been listening to Gitomer’s works (mostly via downloads). Late last year I owned up to how much value I got from them, and I spent $200+ on hardcopies, both paperback and hardback. I made sure that I bought extra copies too, and I gifted them to my sister. (She’s a sales gun but she wants to be the best. Stay tuned for that story.)
The idea is in Jeffrey’s title, The Little Black Book of Connections. If you don’t have it, go buy it.
Fitting with my notion of Sustainability this year, and having a holey inner tube on my bike that requires more time patching than I’ve had this week, I decided to catch the bus.
The first stranger I saw was jogging past, listening to music, furiously intent on the ground in front of her. I saw her approach, at the same time as the bus, and flagged the bus down. Then I managed to catch this woman’s eye and flash her a smile. She didn’t want to smile back, but she did. Smile 1 before 7 am!
The bus driver, it turned out, didn’t see me. He flashed the bus lights, and I flagged it late, then copped an earful of narky, early-morning-wog-man about how I have to hail the bus. Usually it would bother me, but I sunnily replied, ‘Oh but I did! You just didn’t see me!’
He didn’t reply.
At the next stop, a young man that could be described as a simpleton climbed aboard. He knew the two older men at the front of the bus, and I realised they all worked at Bedford together. (For you guys not in Adelaide, Bedford Industries employs disabled Australians and does frankly amazing work.)
The young man said hello to the two men, and shook their hands. I caught his eye.
‘Good morning!’ I chirped loudly.
He smiled. ‘Morning. How are you?’ He was a handsome young thing. He sat as the bus took off down the road.
I had a book on my lap – the one referenced above – and usually I would kind of sneak my face behind the cover and stop conversation. But today I decided that I would leave myself open to people, allow myself to connect, go with the flow. So I let it rest on my lap.
‘I’m very well,’ I beamed. ‘You?’
‘I’m great,’ he said. He paused, held my gaze without fear, anxiety, or guardedness as most people do. He was just himself. ‘I’m 20,’ he said. ‘I’m 21 this year.’
I grinned. ‘That’s awesome,’ I said, making him smile even bigger. ‘That’s way younger than me.’
He raised his eyebrows.
‘I’m 37 this year,’ I said in reply to the eyebrow question.
He was shocked. His jaw fell open, his eyes were like saucers. ‘You don’t look it,’ he said. ‘I would’ve thought you were only 23.’
I laughed, gave him a thumbs up. ‘Well, that’s fantastic to hear. Thank you.’
The bus was nearing his stop and he fell to conversation with the fella beside him, and I went back to my book. I found myself feeling super happy, reflecting on the fact that all of the ‘normal’ people around me got on the bus, kept their gazes down, studiously ignored everyone else around them. And yet the open, fearless, intellectually disabled guy had already made my morning.
There’s a lesson in that, for those willing to see it.
I kept myself to myself for the rest of the trip, and to my dismay finished the book way before we got to the destination. When I got off the bus at my stop, I made a point of waving to the snarky driver, throwing him a smile and thanking him. He scowled. Can’t win ’em all, I thought.
Walking back up to North Terrace, I passed a mumbling drunk man who avoided me. Three cops were on the other side of the street, aimlessly staring. Tradies (mostly) were driving through the city, every second vehicle a ute or car overflowing with men in hi vis. My red dress proved to be fun to stare at; or in any case, attracted attention without trying.
There were plenty of people walking west along North Terrace as I headed to the uni. Nearly all of them had earbuds in, switched out of reality and into some other sound-driven universe, thinking about everything except where they were.
I tried to catch everyone’s eye on my way. Some people just won’t connect. Like businessmen: They won’t look at anybody.
I passed a young woman who had earbuds in, so wishing her good morning was out. But I smiled, and got one back. Number 3.
Then I passed an Aboriginal man who tried really hard to ignore me, but it didn’t work. I flashed him the most charming smile in my armoury, and he returned a corner-of-the-mouth smile, one that was reflected in his eyes more than in his face. Success! Number 4.
It was barely 8 am yet and I’d already hit 4 smiles from complete strangers.
The effect on me personally was nothing short of remarkable. I felt energised, warm, enthusiastic. I felt amused. In fact, I felt like smiling.
Heading down into my office, I passed a few people but they were trying their hardest to be involved in whatever they were doing: Trimming hedges, getting coffee, having conversations. The construction workers and engineers working on the uni’s renovations were out in force, as were the unseen folk: The gardeners, the cleaners, the maintenance guys. No students, really. Not any office staff.
So imagine my surprise when a postdoc appeared at my door after I had decided to go get a cup of tea. She smiled. Her smile didn’t count.
‘Want a real coffee?’ she asked.
Did I ever.
We went down to the cafe together. She smiled at someone who was obviously a colleague of hers. I looked over and smiled too. One of the men in a meeting of men was looking over, and he returned me my smile.
At the counter, I offered to pay for the two coffees. It turned out that my postdoc friend was there at the same time, and ordered the same thing, every single day. The woman at the counter had put her order through without me noticing.
I didn’t know all of this, so I asked what my friend wanted; and learning the above while seeing them exchange a conspiratorial glance, laughed loudly. I made some self-deprecating comment about it all and the woman serving us coffee gave me a huge grin.
The coffee she made was really damned good.
As the postdoc and I chatted on the way back upstairs, and in the corridor, a few people passed us. Strangers, all of them, but it wouldn’t have been right to fail to pay attention to the conversation.
The next opportunity to make someone else smile didn’t happen for a while. Not until my morning meeting turned up. A PhD student who’d booked an appointment with me to discuss the editing of his journal paper, he was someone I’d never met before. When he turned up, he knocked tentatively and introduced himself as he walked in.
I had totally forgotten what time he was turning up, and I was pretty sure that the meeting we booked was later on. No matter. I beamed at him.
‘Yes! Welcome!’ I boomed, standing up and greeting him without reservation. ‘Please, come in and sit down.’
The student relaxed. He smiled and became Number 7.
Before getting into the business end of a meeting, I needed to connect with this guy. We were going to work together, potentially on more than one paper, and so some level of Being Personal is essential. I learned that his mother tongue is Mandarin, I learned all about his research project and why it matters, and I learned what he hopes will be the outcome of the work. Only then did we get into the meat of the meeting, and by the time we parted ways, we were already friends.
Mid-morning, I had one of those OHS & W inductions that is essential for organisations to work properly and maintain their insurance compliances and so on. To be honest, it was a bit of an annoyance because my time there was really only 2.5 hours, and it took up to an hour of the day. But if I didn’t do it, I was still going to have to do it. So I made it my mission to get as much out of it as possible.
When I got to the session with the health & safety officer, he was late. Or rather, he’d been there and put stuff in there, and then had to duck out before I arrived. But when he did arrive, I smiled at him, and stood up and shook him warmly by the hand.
‘It’s lovely to meet you,’ I said to him.
He gave me a huge smile and turned into Number 8.
The session kicked off to a warm start, and part way through, he remarked to me: ‘You have beautiful eyes. They’re very sparkly.’
I had a suspicion that this was because my day had so far been nothing short of fabulous. All of this making-others-smile thing was turning into a drug of some kind. I found it easier to forget about myself, to focus on a conversation that prioritised other people. And, somehow, this enamored people to me.
The officer went through all the boring stuff, and we signed paperwork, and then he took me downstairs to show me where all the health & safety staff ‘live’.
As we walked in, someone was walking out. He tried to sneak past unobserved, but I caught his eye and smiled. It’s a familiar pattern now, right?
He smiled back, ducked his head slightly as though embarrassed at being smiled at, and scooted past. He was number 9.
On our way out of the lab, the officer positively beaming by this point, a student came in. As he sauntered past, removing his earbuds, I threw him a smile. He caught it and threw one back.
Ten smiles. Ten strangers. It wasn’t even 11 am yet.
And I felt amazing.
From this point onwards, I decided to continue on with this behaviour, simply because it was making me feel so happy. More to the point, it was making my day just easier. People seemed to get out of my way without any fuss. Things I attempted to do just worked. I seemed to be on time everywhere, even without trying.
Importantly, people were easier to connect with. Conversations were easier, smoother, and more interesting.
On the tram, I sat in a group of four seats by myself, until I was joined by a middle-aged couple. They both returned my smile. The lady opposite us with a newborn was in another world, but when she saw me, she smiled gently, clearly in a happy little bubble all of her own as she stroked her sleepy baby’s cheek.
Ducking through Central Market, I passed a woman in a hijab who had a baby in a stroller. She looked tense. I’m not surprised, given the state of society in this day and age. I smiled at her and intended it to say, ‘I appreciate you’. She felt it, and she gave me the most meaningful, heartfelt smile I received all day: Her entire body relaxed, and her eyes said that she meant it.
This attitude did interesting things to how I walked, too. I walked tall. I noticed everyone else I passed. I was unafraid of catching other people’s eyes. I connected in some way with nearly every person I walked past. The experience was phenomenal. It was the first time in a very long time in which I felt like I was not put out by people, that we were all the same, actually. It was bizarre.
When I got to my final meeting of the day, I related the stories you’ve seen here. And my meeting partner said to me, ‘You do look really good, really bright today.’
He made me smile. By now, I was not surprised. He pointed out that probably I make people smile every day. I had to point out that I might, but I don’t try. And that today, I tried.
We were the last ones in the cafe, and the staff patiently waited for us to finish up. Remarkable, really, for a Friday afternoon. As I passed one of the women in there, her earrings flashed. I caught sight of a cockatoo dangling from her ear.
I couldn’t help it.
‘You’re wearing lovely earrings,’ I said to her.
She smiled. Then she told me that they were from somewhere in Asia. She’d found a little designer there who made them for her.
‘I love cockatoos,’ she confided to me. ‘They’re my spirit animal.’
People will tell you remarkable things about themselves when you connect with them. It makes life so much richer. The trouble is, few people are interested in being part of the fabric of life. It’s far too easy just to switch off.