Why I Smile at Strangers

Though I was born and raised in Massachusetts, I think I’m secretly a Midwestern girl at heart.

I’ve always had an unintentional effect on people that prompts them to tell me all about their lives. To be clear, I don’t just mean friends, I mean perfect strangers too.

One time, a man seated next to me on a plane ignored my attempt at headphones and proceeded to open up therapy-couch-style. He told me all about how his challenges as a dad of adopted disabled children led to his pending divorce. Not light airplane fare at all. I feel like we made some breakthroughs, despite my total lack of a counseling degree. You see, I’m not kidding around when I say I love helping people find their stories.

Despite these tendencies towards friendliness, I didn’t fully discover my Midwestern attitude until my twenties. Shortly after college, I left the city of Boston (population 673,184) for the “city” of Chelsea, Michigan (population 4,944) to apprentice at the Purple Rose Theatre Company.

In Chelsea, I lived in a tiny studio apartment next to the Jiffy Mix Factory, above Zou Zou’s Café and a small hair salon. The hairdresser, a very sweet man in his 60s, also happened to be my landlord. For the record: yes, I let him cut my hair once, and no, it wasn’t the best idea. During the first week after I moved in, I was reading a book on a bench outside my apartment and, not one, but two separate locals stopped to inquire if I was new in town. This is where I had landed.

Yet, almost without missing a beat, I began to establish small talk relationships with everyone from the server at Zou Zou’s to the mail carrier who delivered my bills. When I later moved from Chelsea to the notably larger college town of Ann Arbor, my neighborly ways persisted.

Upon returning to Massachusetts back in 2012, I began to notice something. Suddenly, the checkout associate at Stop & Shop looked at me like I was crazy when I asked how her day was going. When I wished good morning to people on the sidewalks of West Roxbury or Framingham, I was often met with blank stares or quickly averted eyes.

Now, I’m not saying that people from Massachusetts aren’t friendly. I have met plenty of warm and wonderful humans in the Bay State. What I am saying is that generally speaking, there is a much more guarded attitude. I observe it as this pervasive assumption that if someone you don’t know is talking to you, then they must want something.

So—naturally—I’ve since made it my hobby to try to get the grumpiest-looking people to smile and engage in human connection whenever possible.

There was one time when I had to get a blood sample taken at a lab and was called in by a really rude and snappy phlebotomist. She barked questions at me (“Name!?? . . . Date of Birth?!?”) then proceeded to start jabbing my vein like she was digging for something.

I decided to ask her how her day was going. Like magic, things began to turn around. I learned that she was from Bermuda and had only been in the States for a few years. I also learned that the reason she was so unpleasant was that her cat, who was her closest companion, had just died. She showed me his photos and started tearing up. By the end of our chat, she gently applied my Band-Aid and hugged me goodbye, wishing me well.

Moments like that make kindness worth it every time.

Now, I’m not saying I win over every sour-faced mall-goer, or that I’m at my friendliest every moment of every day. Admittedly, I have my Bostonian “I-hate-all-people-especially-those-driving-cars-who-are-in-my-way” moments. Seriously, ask my husband. But, I try each day to at least smile and make a connection with one person who might need it.

The truth is, we’re all fighting battles that no one else can see. Sometimes, something as small as a smile from a stranger can give us the energy we need to keep up the fight.