Why you should smile at strangers

connectSmiles, or nods, or simple acknowledgements of presence—they do make a difference.

Live Science reported on research out of Purdue University that showed how small gestures of acknowledgement make people feel connected, and when people feel connected, they feel better about themselves. Conversely, when ignored by a stranger, people felt socially disconnected and not so good about themselves.

I work in downtown Ottawa, Canada. Every day I walk by countless strangers without acknowledging them in any way. They are busy, rushing to meetings, or chatting with companions. They already thrive in social connections. But I do smile, nod or say hello to some people. When I see homeless or disenfranchised members of society standing on street corners, I acknowledge them. I can’t solve all their problems, but I can do some small thing to make them feel connected.

You might have heard of Dr. Masaru Emoto’s famous work with water crystals. His experiments  show that positive thoughts affect water crystals in a positive way. His controversial results stretch the imagination and skeptics claim they are pseudo-science, but no matter how you feel about it, his work prompted many people to try home experiments on the same theme.

One family prepared three jars of rice: one with a label that read, “Thank you,” a second with a label that read “You fool,” and a third that they ignored. After a month, the rice in the jar with “Thank you” began to turn to ferment with a mellow malty smell, and the jar with “You fool” turned black and rotten. And the jar they ignored? It rotted and turned black fastest of all. It seems that ignoring something is the most damaging form of behaviour.

Smiles, nods, or simple acknowledgements of presence—they do make a difference.

4 thoughts on “Why you should smile at strangers

  1. Sharyn

    I do this all the time, whether the recipient is downtrodden or appears on the top of the world. I’ve discovered that even the most disheartened or angry person can’t help but respond to a smile.

    I only remember one, possibly two occasions where a smile was returned with either a scowl or a blank stare. Out of hundreds, possibly millions of encounters in a lifetime, that’s not a bad statistic. But I had NO idea there was actually science to support it.

    In particular, I love the reactions of kids. They often aren’t quite sure what to make of it.

  2. wordsurfer

    So true! I try to smile at people, but often I’m so wrapped in my own thoughts that I disconnect myself.
    I remember one summer evening when I was strolling through downtown London with my then-boyfriend and the only moment I can remember vividly is the one when I looked up from the crowded alley full of people in suits and tourists drinking the first beer of the evening and I saw a young man leaning out of a window in an upstairs flat, watching the people pass by. And when our eyes met, I lifted a hand and waved at him and smiled and he smiled back. It was the best moment of the night because it was so unexpected.


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