25 January 2011

Smile! It Won't Kill You!

I went for a walk the other day.  Not exactly blog-worthy, you must be thinking, but nonetheless it turned out to be interesting.

Being American, female and a fairly nice person, I am naturally rather friendly.  As such, it was a bit of an adjustment for me to move to Monaco years ago.  You see, I was used to smiling at passing strangers and as long as they looked reasonably normal, even throwing out an occasional ‘hi or hello’ as we crossed paths.  That didn’t exactly fly here. Monaco is surrounded by France.  And France, one can safely say, is full of French people not particularly known for their overwhelming friendliness.  (I apologize to my many French friends who are among the nicest people I know!)  I am speaking generalities here.

Americans, one has to admit, are super friendly.  Yes, we might be able to go into our local Wal-Mart, buy a gun in a day, and carry that gun with us as we walk down the street, but you can be damn sure that we will say hello when we pass you.  And that’s nice (not the gun part, to which I am adamantly opposed.)

So, living here I had to get used to putting on a glazed demeanor as I passed people.  I consoled myself with trips home to the States, when I delighted in pointing out the general friendliness to my boys.  “Did you see, how nice he was?”  “Did you see how what a friendly smile she gave you?”  “How sweet was that that they offered you a candy!”  “And what about that guy in Customs & Immigration who said ‘Welcome Home’ when we arrived!” “Aren’t Americans just the friendliest people you ever met?!”

You see, I had always taken it for granted, but this friendliness was not to be found in most of the other places I’ve lived and traveled.  Often, even in Switzerland, we would go on hikes and pass people and smile, and they would stare back in alarm as if they were afraid we’d just been released from the local lunatic asylum.  My friendly boys and I rose to the challenge.  We would train people to smile.  Whenever we passed anyone, we would light up as if they were a long lost relative, smile ear to ear, and offer a friendly hello in the proper language.  We gave it our best shot.  And nothing.  Absolutely no response aside from the occasional tight lipped nod.  After a while we gave up, it was a stupid idea anyway.

So back to my walk.  I was in Monaco, where I’ve pretty much given up on smiling at strangers.  But this particular evening I set out along the sea.  There was a lovely breeze; the sun was just starting to set and the colors to intensify.  And being that I was in an excellent mood and lost in thought, when I passed a woman coming at me from the opposite direction, I smiled at her. (Don’t forget I’ve had years of cultural conditioning that is difficult to overcome, especially if you’re somewhat distracted.)  I did note, almost immediately after I sent my smile out there, that this woman had a miserable, sour look on her face and I thought, typical!  Just another wretched person.  But lo, and behold, no sooner had I registered that thought when the woman apparently recovered from the shock of being smiled at.  Her whole face lit up in a warm and friendly smile in response. Honestly, it transformed her.  And, I must admit, it made my day. 

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