yellow balloon with a smiley face on it, floating up into the sky

I found myself immersed in a sea of people last week, adrift in the ebb and flow of humanity at O’Hare Airport after I arrived in Chicago. Sometimes it felt as if I was swimming against a current, a riptide of passengers intent on sweeping me the wrong direction.

As I eased through the waves of people in the concourse, I noticed that no one seemed to make eye contact with anyone else. It seems we humans as a group can weave through streams of people pressing from the opposite direction, but we can’t look each other in the eyes.

Why is this?

I’m guilty of it too, adhering to some unspoken societal norm, an unwritten code that we must avert our eyes when we meet others, especially amidst a throng of people.

Is it because it’s too much work to make eye contact and smile at so many people? I suppose I can understand that behavior when large numbers are present, but the problem is, it happens in small groups too. I’ve been in retail stores, with only three or four shoppers around and it’s as if we’re all invisible to each other, as if each individual is the lone person in the locale. Somehow, we are only visible to the store workers, and they ignore sometimes as well.

What are the rules? When is it okay to acknowledge others in this world when you are somewhere you don’t know anyone? I think there is a formula to it. As the number of people in a particular location goes up, the smaller the radius around us becomes before we’ll acknowledge a person that slips within that radius. For example, if two people pass each other by 40 feet on a beach at 6 a.m. when no other people are around, they most likely will acknowledge each other and smile. But pack that beach with 100 people walking the sand later in the day and those same two people will probably not make eye contact and smile even if they pass within 5 feet. I’m sure we are seeing each other; we just pretend we don’t.

Again, what’s going on here? What drives this behavior?

I think I know…at least part of the reason.

Many of us are afraid of each other. I don’t mean that we’re afraid the others will hurt us, but rather, if we attempt to make eye contact, if we smile at that other person and they don’t smile back, they don’t acknowledge our existence, then we feel hurt. We feel rejected. At best, we’ll be ignored and at worst, be thought a weirdo.

That’s what it’s truly about, I believe. Protecting ourselves. If a person doesn’t return the smile, then it’s easy to analyze ourselves, to believe we are not worthy or lovable or cool. But the irony is, it has nothing to do with us. If someone doesn’t return a smile, then they are the one with the issue, whether it’s insecurity, or preoccupation, or sadness, or maybe they are just not a nice person. But are those good reasons to not make the effort, to not acknowledge our fellow human and smile at them?

I don’t think so.

So when I returned to O’Hare for my flight home, I decided to try an experiment. I planned to smile at as many people as possible. Let them think me a weirdo for smiling if they wanted. What did I care? Humanity was at stake here. Maybe I could singlehandedly reverse this insidious trend of pretending each other doesn’t exist. Perhaps smiling at people would make them smile at others and we’d get a smile wave emanating outward in vast ripples from the epicenter of O’Hare.

To be honest, I was a bit nervous. I braced for rejection, for the distinct possibility no one would return a smile, or even care.

I was wrong.

As I smiled at the stream of people moving toward me, many faces in the crowd shifted from stern to sunny. Eyes twinkled. Smiles bounced back at me. Yes, some people had heads down or eyes locked on some point behind me, but more people smiled than I would have ever guessed. And there was a pleasant side effect. Anyone who caught my smile to them, tried a little harder to move out of my way, to offer a small, but well-meant concession of their space in the concourse walkway. I moved much easier through the crowds this time.

But then I wondered… I wondered if the issue had perhaps been with me the whole time? Could my face have been stuck in sour mode? Had I looked stern and un-smile-worthy to others? Had I needed to change my inside expression to affect the outside expression in order to view a different world, one where people did acknowledge and smile at each other? Is it possible that the world is only a reflection of what we are experiencing inside? I’ve decided to ditch the exercise as an experiment and change it to full-time habit. It’s amazing how many smiling people are in this world now.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” But it works for smiling too. The next time you are in a crowd or passing people on the sidewalk, fight the urge to ignore them. Become a Smile Giver instead. I promise you will be surprised at how many you get back.

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This post almost ended with that last sentence. But there was something I forgot, an old event in my life that didn’t enter my mind until this post was complete.

I’ve read before that everything we need to know to be happy is already inside of us, that we already know it… we just need reminders sometimes. It must be true. We must need constant reminders because I’ve learned this post’s entire lesson before, over 20 years ago. And yesterday, a memory popped into my head, one I haven’t thought about in a couple of years.

Like the sea of humanity I was in last week at O’Hare, there was another sea I found myself in almost 21 years ago: the Black Sea. I’d just turned 21 in the middle of that huge expanse of water, a sailor in the US Navy. My ship, the USS Peterson, was tracking a new Soviet aircraft carrier, gathering intelligence as it performed its own operations in the area. At the time, the cold war was still on and the Berlin wall had yet to fall. Communism reigned in the Soviet Union and Reagan had proclaimed it the “Evil Empire.”

We spent several days testing how close we could get to the ship, until one point our vessel made a run at the Soviet carrier, slipping as close as possible to take photos. Over forty members of our crew had gathered on the port side to see the Soviet ship up close. But there was tension among us, fear of what might happen. As we pulled alongside, we were shocked to see a large group of their crew had done the same.

We watched them, their wide eyes mirroring our own. I remember thinking, “They’re a bunch of kids, just like us.” I suppose I had expected a crew of crusty old men who looked more like pirates than the young boys across from us. The Soviet carrier’s surface-to-surface guns whirred to life, the huge barrels turning toward our ship, their country sending a “hello” to ours.

Our ship began to veer away. As it did, one of our youngest sailors, an eighteen-year-old from the mid-west, inched his hand upward and gave a small wave. All the Russians, every single one, began leaping up and down, smiling, cheering, waving wildly to us. Our group erupted in a return cheer, smiles on every face, arms slicing back and forth through the air until the two ships were so far apart the groups could barely see one another.

As we sailed away, I realized our concerns had been vapor. Our leaders had convinced us that Russians were bad people, the enemy. But it was an erroneous perception. Perhaps their government was not good at the time, but the majority of its people weren’t. They almost never are.

But even over here in the US, when we are supposed to be on the same side, the same soil, I still think most of us are afraid of each other. But we wouldn’t be… not if we’d all just wave and smile at each other a little more.

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