Ashley Davies: The smile experiment

A BRIEF experiment shows that many ­people are happy to connect with a stranger if only we give them a chance, writes Ashley Davies

Making eye contact and smiling at a stranger on the bus could be regarded by some people as an invitation to further interaction. Picture: Getty

There’s more than a fortnight left to run on National Smile Month – which is actually an oral health campaign, but I thought I’d subvert it a little with an unscientific experiment in friendliness. Well, arm’s length friendliness anyway. Spending a whole month smiling at strangers was going to be a challenge too far for this city-dweller (I’m a big fan of a nod and a greeting in the countryside, but it’s not so realistic in an urban setting), so I decided to spend just one day doing it, the aim being to see how people would respond and how their responses would make me feel.

I woke up early, which I rarely do, and smiled, as I always do, at my other half, which was easy, as he’s a decent sort who always smiles back. The first strangers I encountered on leaving the flat were a couple of builders eating buns in a van. I was hoping they wouldn’t see me but they did, so I smiled. One of them, who was about to put food in his mouth, did a sort of double-take and his food stopped short of his open mouth as he gawped at me in surprise. They didn’t smile back and I was embarrassed.

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Walking to the bus stop I passed three separate women in their 50s. It was easy to smile at them and they all responded well, their task-orientated expressions transforming naturally into friendly ones. It felt good, like when you encounter random friendliness on holiday.

Smiling at a bored toddler in a supermarket can be rewarding. Picture: Getty

Then I spotted a big man cleaning up after his big dog. He emphatically did not return my smile; maybe he thought he was being laughed at, which made me feel bad, or maybe he was just hacked off.

When I got to the bus stop I beamed at a teenage girl, who looked right through me, her face stony. This knocked my confidence a bit. There was another waiting passenger who I just couldn’t smile at. I can’t quite put my finger on it but there was something a bit prickly about him and I found myself unable even to fake an amiable face. This bothered me for the rest of the day. How awful must it be to have a demeanour that made other people disinclined to show warmth; to feel as if you weren’t worth smiling at? Had he cultivated a carapace to protect himself after years of rejection, was he a misanthrope or did he just have one of those faces, with a perfectly amenable personality hidden underneath? It made me more determined to make an effort with the next tricky-looking subject, whether they liked it or not.

After hopping on the bus, I smiled at the driver, as I always do. He grimaced back and for some reason I felt I should apologise.

I found a seat at the back, opposite a teenage girl and her mother, who were talking quietly in what sounded like Hindi. They both smiled back shyly and I put my head down to do some work. Every time I looked up their smiles got broader and more expectant, as though my initial grin had been a promise of conversation. This pattern would repeat itself several times throughout the day – lots of people seemed to think a smile was a deposit being paid for some more meaningful interaction.

My next stop was the hospital, to get my crunchy knee X-rayed. The first group of people with whom I made eye contact were a group of smokers, each of whom reciprocated with wide, gap-toothed grins. Nicotine addicts are generally friendly individuals, accustomed to making chat with people they don’t know in the not-so-great outdoors.

Inside the hospital I was struck by how every member of staff whose eye I caught smiled right back at me. These are people who devote their lives to making sure everyone else is OK, and deserve every gratitude. As I tried to find the right department I was conscious that this was not the best place in which to be throwing happy face around willy nilly. A lot of people, understandably, were on edge, on guard or on call and a gentle smile at a patient would often result in an anticipatory raising of eyebrows and a leaning forward as if to receive some information.

However, lots of elderly people waiting to be seen took my smile and doubled it in return. In places like this, kindness is gratefully received.

Stepping back out into the sunlight, the first people I saw were more builders. Ugh. Nothing against builders, I swear, but I’m still sensitive to the cat-calling and low-grade harassment I suffered in my younger days; it’s intimidating and embarrassing. So, for the purposes of the experiment, I smiled at one of them and he stopped what he was doing and took the opportunity to look me up and down, as if I had issued a clear invitation for him to do so. It made me feel uncomfortable and I then scowled at him; he looked bewildered.

While I was waiting to cross the road I noticed a couple of young women singing their lungs out to a syrupy pop song in a car. I grinned at them anyway because they were having so much unselfconscious fun. They noticed, stopped singing, blushed and then wailed with laughter and we shared a wonderful moment that kept me smiling to myself for a ages.

In the supermarket on my way to work everyone seemed too busy to make eye contact for long enough for me to smile at them – apart from a toddler in a shopping trolley, who rewarded my efforts with some top quality chuckling, which was immensely gratifying.

By the time I left work after nine hours without a break I confess I was too exhausted to continue the experiment, though I did half-heartedly stretch my mouth for the bus driver, who nodded in response. He probably felt exactly the same.

What I learned over the day of rigorous sociological analysis was this: most people smile back and this brief human connection makes you feel good; some people think a smile is an invitation to a conversation, flirtation or weirdness, which is tricky, and might explain why so many people refuse to engage; and the people who are hardest to smile at are probably those at whom we should make the most effort to smile.