I have a well-established habit of greeting passers-by. When I take my walk by the Bay, I like to smile or say hi to everyone I pass. I feel good when people cooperate. I sense a local lightening of the atmosphere, an infinitesimal exchange of positive energy. When people stare straight ahead or keep their eyes fixed on the path, it bothers me, but I try to remind myself that they may have good reason to wear a personal dome of silence on this occasion.
One of the enlightening things about travel is how being in strange surroundings shows us ourselves. Walking in familiar territory, my body knows the way, like a horse that takes its rider home. But traveling abroad, I have to be attentive. If like me, you are often lost, you have to notice your surroundings, pay attention to the sequence of streets and whether you turned right or left leaving the place you are staying. When there’s no mail to open or messages to collect, no house to clean or chores to accomplish, the traveler is alone with herself and wide, wide awake.
I was in Barcelona at the height of tourist season, so I bumped into countless people, making my way upstream among the thousands swimming like spawning salmon along La Rambla, a main boulevard. My smiling habit kicked in, so I had countless opportunities to receive unblinking stares in return, or to experience slightly uncomfortable moments watching someone’s eyes slide off my face, bringing to mind the fastidious averting their gaze from the scene of an accident.
One day, after a trip to the museum with the bright and thoughtful young community artist who had offered to be my guide, I decided to investigate. “When we walk along the street or through the museum and I smile and nod at people,” I asked, “do they see me as some sort of grinning idiot?”
“Yes,” he said, clearly relieved at being able to break the news.
I thought of a dozen experiences in the previous days, such as catching an acquaintance’s eye at the other end of a long restaurant table and smiling, then watching time slow down while some mysterious calculation was performed before a hesitant smile was returned.
Of course, I’ve encountered such customs in this country too: most people on New York’s subways stare ahead unseeing, as if eye contact were a contaminant. I comprehend why, in the press of urban overcrowding, people want to protect themselves from unwanted intimacy. But in my short trip abroad, I wasn’t able to break the habit of smiling, nor the habit of feeling ever so slightly crushed when my greetings were not returned.
In London, I smiled less at strangers, but it was tricky to figure out the rules of conversation. Grocery clerks tended to fall into a fetching hilarity when I asked how their day was going, as if I were a puppy that had learned to speak. One day I sat on a bench in Hyde Park, gazing at the reflection of clouds on water, while a man sat at the other end of the bench, carefully facing away from me. After a little while, a large dog ambled over and began barking at the ducks, chasing them away. The man turned to me to express his annoyance, and that unlocked the gates of conversation: he’d grown up on a farm in Ireland, I learned, and worked on cruise ships most of his life. We covered a dozen topics in the ten minutes before I had to leave for an appointment. I said goodbye and smiled. He wished me well with great sincerity, but without smiling.
I don’t for a minute think this means either the Spanish or the residents of the British Isles are less friendly or good-humored than Californians (and not all of us have the smiling habit, either). That was not at all my experience: everyone I spent time with was gracious and welcoming. What it did teach me is this: that in our little worlds, we assign meaning to habits and gestures, then promptly forget that the meaning is anything but intrinsic. Maybe our smiley habits are grounded in our proclivity to violence: maybe out of self-protection, we have to give each other bigger, more obvious signals that we mean no harm. Maybe our smiles serve our self-image: we go around acting neighborly on the streets to cover up the ways we demonize difference and spend so much effort and resource locking people up or keeping them out. Maybe we’re actually nice—or when all is said and done, grinning idiots.
The thing is, when you consider how much such tiny signs and signifiers express the unfathomable mystery that is Other People Who Live In Other Places, it amazes me that we don’t blunder into conflict—into terminal misunderstanding—even more often than we do.
The place I live is remarkably diverse. The last statistics I saw said that nearly half of my neighbors speak English as a second language. When I smile at a passerby and that person smiles or nods back, very often, more than the space of a path is being bridged. What a lot of goodwill there is in the world! How much allowance we make for each other! And how hard it is to stay wide, wide awake enough to notice that, even at home.