To Smile Or Not To Smile? That Is The Question

friendlymeterYou have a split second to respond.  There are no do-overs.   Choose poorly and you risk being tagged as Stuck-up Bitch or Village Idiot.

I’m talking about navigating the no-man’s land between seeing someone, and  figuring out if it’s someone you know.

Last week I was heading for a treadmill at the Y.  “Stayin’ Alive” was blasting through my headphones and I was concentrating on a tricky blog post conundrum.  Wearing my “frowning because I’m thinking (not because I’m a grouch)” face, I walked right past Unimportant Stranger.  But it wasn’t Unimportant Stranger.

It was Cherished Client.

The identity of the passee and the warm smile she directed my way didn’t pierce my self-absorbed fog until I was 10 steps past her.  By then it was too late to go back and retrieve the (erroneous) impression left with Cherished Client that I am Stuck-up Bitch.

Alas, poor Peg-O, I knew her, Horatio.

Alas, poor Peg-O, I knew her, Horatio.

Let’s compare this to yesterday’s incident.  I saw Good Friend approaching.  I gave a spastically vigorous, short-arced little hand wave at my shoulder level.  This was accompanied by an exaggerated, goggle-eyed, compressed-lip, Stan Laurel smile.

It was not Good Friend.

It was Uncomfortable Stranger.  Uncomfortable Stranger’s expression suggested that, due to my overly familiar greeting, she thought I was an exuberantly friendly short-bus rider.  She was probably bracing for a hug.

There are 7.1 billion human beings roaming this planet and no two of them look exactly alike.  You have to root around in your mental filing cabinet every time you meet someone to correctly identify that specific arrangement of fleshly features.  When you toss in my aging eyeballs and post-menopausal, Swiss-cheese brain, it’s OK that it takes me a few minutes to process, right?

Wrong.

A nanosecond is all you get.  If you don’t pitch your first response in exactly the right spot on the broad spectrum between Stranger Danger and Bosom Buddy, you’re social toast.

What’s the solution?

Maybe I should look everyone straight in the eye.  I should recognize each person, be they Friend or Stranger, as the special individual they truly are.  And maybe, just maybe, I should wear a warm, welcoming smile for everyone I meet.

Naa-a-a-a. If I wore THAT expression, nobody would recognize ME.

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About pegoleg

R-A-M-B-L-I-N-G-S, Ram...Blin!
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95 Responses to To Smile Or Not To Smile? That Is The Question

  1. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    That’s a tough one, peg. Seems to me, if one was able to tolerate the extreme stress of doing it, plastering a maniacal smile on one’s face whenever you leave the house is the way to go. Everyone gets the same demonic look. Everyone suspects you’re nuts. It would make life a lot simpler than having to decide in a split second if you know that person approaching.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      It would also alleviate the pesky problem of having to jostle people on the sidewalk, because everybody would cross the street when they see me coming. Perfect idea!

      Like

  2. This can also work in reverse. When I was younger apparently I was quite pleasant, warm and friendly. I distinctly remember the first day that I was wandering about with a lot of things on my mind and perhaps wasn’t my usual smiling self. At least a dozen people, over the course of a day, came up to me and asked if I was “OK”or “is there something wrong?”. It was just my thinking face as you say. Maybe I didn’t think much back then.

    Like

  3. I’m constantly mis-gauging who I know and don’t. Just yesterday I had to record some voice-over stuff for a play and when I got to the studio to meet the tech, I was prepared to say, “You must be Diane?” And (luckily) was cut off by her saying, “Hey, good to see you! How’s the baby? Did you bring pictures? You know I moved, so I never get to see you and Michele out walking the dogs any more…” etc. etc. etc. I could have STILL said, “Ah, so you must be Diane; and we must know each other.”

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      I do that ALL the time. I don’t know which is worse – looking like a self-absorbed doofus who can’t be bothered to introduce themselves to somebody new, or looking like a self-absorbed doofus who can’t be bothered to remember people they already know. Either way, it’s a ride on the Doofus Express.

      I’ll save you a seat.

      Like

  4. Oh I know exactly what you mean, I hate that! Sometimes you lock eyes with someone and you both feel that you may know each other, but aren’t quite sure, and at the last second before you pass, they smile, and it’s too late for you to smile back and so you seem like the grouchy unfriendly one, you want to run back after them, turn them around and smile at them, but you know you can’t. Or sometimes you smile at someone because you know them and they stare back, and they have plenty of time to smile back, but they don’t, why? You don’t know why! You want to run back after them, turn them around and say “Why?!” It’s a tricky business.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Very tricky. And any sort of “running after and turning people around” activity is usually frowned upon as a tad too aggressive for greeting a stranger. It’s a conundrum.

      Like

  5. Go Jules Go says:

    Oh this made me laugh, Peggles. I often refer to myself as a “Swiss cheese head” (just this weekend, I had signed up for a charity run in Philly with the Accidental Stepmom, only to find out that she, logically, signed up for the one in… NJ… in June – which she did in fact tell me weeks ago. And yet).

    Hopefully you’re not at work today with one less client 😉

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Charity run? Good for you! I could do a charity walk, but running is wa-a-a-y out of my league. Sounds like you’ll be running it alone because of that little “wrong state” kerfuffle, but that is totally understandable because Pennsylvania and New Jersey look so much…sound so much…are right next to one another, practically, on the map. So understandable.

      Like

  6. I do this especially when I see people out of context. I was swimming at the Y last year and walked up to someone who I thought was my daughter’s teacher and had an entire conversation. The person nodded and smiled and then I realized I was talking to a complete stranger. I ordered prescription swim goggles the next day. Yes, I was a dipstick, but what about the person who just let me go on and on? There aren’t any goggles for that!

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Ha ha! “out of context” is exactly right. And give that other person some slack. She was probably wracking her brain the entire time thinking she knew you from somewhere and the problem was with HER.

      Like

  7. Sara says:

    I just hate when that happens. It usually happens that I see people I know in places they aren’t supposed to be. Like once Husby and I saw our realtor – at the casino. Another time I saw a coworker at one of the craft shows I was doing a whole state away. Even if I recognize these people I can’t, for the life of me, remember their names.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      You are so right. That happened 2 weeks ago. I was at a seminar about an hour away, waiting for my turn in the ladies room during a 10 minute potty break, and a woman came out of the stall and started chatting at me like we were long lost friends. She knew my kids names, asked after them, I’m chatting back, laughing and trying to field questions, the whole time saying to myself “I have never in my life seen this person.”

      I THINK I muddled through and then went back to the registration table to look up her name. Light bulb! Turns out we had shared chaperone duties on a school bus trip a couple of years ago. After 24 hours one-way on a bus I practically knew her in the Biblical way, but I still couldn’t remember her. I’m pathetic.

      Like

  8. Easy. I smile at everyone. What’s the worse that could happen? No. Wait. Don’t answer that! 😉

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Nothing bad could possibly happen! Unless the person you smile at is a homicidal axe murderer who had just decided to pick his next victim as “the next idiotic, Suzy Sunshine who slops smiley happiness in my direction.” But that probably wouldn’t happen. Probably.

      Like

  9. I smile at everyone. Except one person. Okay two. But everyone else gets to see my slightly crooked pearly whites. Those other two? They can suck it. 🙂

    Like

  10. Around here, most everyone walks around with a look of barely contained rage on their face. If I walked around with a big goofy smile, they’d all probably want to punch me.

    But I do it anyway. I like to live dangerously.

    When someone is in my peripheral vision, I normally only see a big blur. Actually, when I look directly at them, I still see a blur. I really should go to the eye doc and get glasses, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to find his office.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      big, goofy smile = living dangerously. My, what an exciting life you lead, Miss Darla.

      When I’m looking at someone, trying to figure out if I know them, if they suddenly look MY way, I look the other way quickly. I don’t want it to look like I’m staring at somebody like a stalker. But then if they smile and I catch it in my peripheral vision, I’ve already looked away and I look like an unfriendly stalker. So I whip my head back around and try a response smile, but by then THEY’VE looked the other way and I just come across as an impotent unfriendly stalker.

      Maybe I’m analyzing this a bit too much, hmm?

      Like

  11. Al says:

    The one I hate is when someone you don’t know waves at you and you wave back, only to find out they were acknowledging someone behind you. In spite of the innocence of the situation , you still feel like a dumbass.

    As for your problem, Peg, I suggest walking around with a sign pinned on to you saying, “I have aging eyeballs and a post-menopausal swiss-cheesed brain. If you know me, please say hi, if not just keep walking. Your cooperation is appreciated.” That should do it.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Oh jeez, that is the worst. Leaving church last night somebody smiled and said a big “Hi”. I didn’t recognize him, but I responded in kind. As he walked by me he started talking to the person in the pew right behind me, who was obviously the intended smile recipient.

      Like

  12. OneHotMess says:

    I smile at everyone. I don’t care if they think that I am the village idiot, which they probably do because this is Maine and people do not just go around smiling! 😉

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      It’s not a BAD thing to walk around like Little Miss Sunshine…I guess.

      Like

      • OneHotMess says:

        LOL! I do NOT walk around with a smile plastered on my face, however, if we make eye contact, I will always smile. I might even speak, whether I know you or not. 😉 I find that a lot of people need that smile, or just to be recognized as being there and alive.

        Like

        • pegoleg says:

          OK, OK, I get it. You are in ” Warm & Wonderful” and categorically denying the “Village Idiot” level of smiling. My problem is that the eye contact/smile opportunity doesn’t penetrate my brain until I’m already past and it’s too late.

          Like

          • OneHotMess says:

            Well, peg, then you just turn around and smile and say, “I am sorry! I was off in my own swell little world and didn’t notice you until we;d passed. It’s so good to see you!! ” I am menopausal. I totally get that. If you smile at someone you do not know, which I do all of the time, well, you made someone’s day. 😉

            Like

        • OneHotMess says:

          Also know that I am an introvert. I am warm and I am sometimes wonderful, and I am always witty, but sometimes the people that I smile and speak to really need to talk, and I am usually under the impression that I am in a big hurry, so at some point, I begin to send out the “Disengage! Disengage!” signals. Those rarely work for me, but it is a cross that I can bear. 😉

          Like

  13. I smile at everyone. I don’t care if they think I’m an idiot. I wear contacts for close work on the computer which means I’m blind as a bat for anything over three feet away (except for driving when I do wear distance glasses). If I just smile and nod at the blurry face, I figure I’m probably okay.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      You are a better person than I. Also smarter, because I have the same problem with the blurriness without my glasses and should do the same thing to cover my…bases.

      Like

  14. “Spastically vigorous” is my new favorite phrase.

    Like

  15. You’d fit right in here in NYC where looking someone directly in the eye is an act of aggression. 🙂

    Like

  16. susielindau says:

    I just smile at everyone. That mistaken identity thing happens to me all the time and I figure it is better to err on the safe side and make some stranger happy or at least wonder. I tend to be pretty friendly and smile at everyone anyway. It is genetic….

    Like

  17. Carrie Rubin says:

    I think we can all relate to this one. I especially do the first one–not recognize someone until we’ve passed each other. It’s because I’m always so absorbed in my own thoughts, and what looks like a grumpy face is really just my deep-in-thought face. I feel your pain!

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this. It appears we’re the only 2 people on the planet who don’t greet everybody with a warm, sincere smile.

      Like

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        It drove me crazy when I was a young woman deep in thought and some man would pass me and say, “Smile,” as if because I was female, I should of course be smiling. The command would only ensure a deeper frown. This doesn’t happen to me anymore. Guess I’ve passed the age where strange men care if I’m smiling or not…

        Like

  18. List of X says:

    My solution? Say “hi, how are you?” to anyone who makes eye contact. Let THEM figure it out if they know me or not.

    Like

  19. Elyse says:

    I don’t worry about it too much. My “Early Onset Alzheimer’s” Badge usually suffices.

    Like

  20. BillThePraiseAndWorshipGuy says:

    Conferences are the worst. I would lead music for 3,000 people and they would all know ME, but I would be clueless, although I do remember faces forever and would recognize but not know them. We learned to do the quick-glance-at-the-nametag while giving a hug and saying “how are you, brother (sister)?”

    Like

  21. psychoflearning says:

    On my college campus, there was this girl who looked familiar but I wasn’t sure so I never said hi, and instead just pretended I didn’t see her, and she never acknowledge me either. Then one day I was rushing around a corner and bumped into her and accidentally and automatically was like “oh hello!” with this big friendly smile (which I don’t know where that came from- I’m really introverted and am not that friendly even with people I usually do say hi to) and she was like “oh hi!” and smiled, too. After that we did the polite smile when we saw each other. I still don’t know where I knew her from. But, apparently she had the same feeling.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      How about when you DO know the person, but you pretend you don’t see them because you don’t want to talk to them? Let’s face it, with some people you’re willing to chew off your own arm to escape their conversation.

      Like

      • psychoflearning says:

        Haha, yep, that’s when you have to pretend to be extremely interested in whatever building you’re walking past, or maybe your phone. Another time, this girl was walking towards me and she had a really cool sweater on, and I was so absorbed in contemplating the sweater that I didn’t notice she was my cousin until she had passed.

        Like

  22. Tar-Buns says:

    I can so relate to this conundrum. I run into former and current students while shopping. Usually the former student’s face is familiar to me but placing the name – only the ones I really had a strong relationship with do I remember. That could be the one who made my life hell or the one I absolutely loved teaching.

    I always smile and say hi, ask how they’re doing, (they tell me), … while I try to hide the case of beer in my grocery cart. 🙂

    Happy Monday to you and your minions.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      Haha! As long as it’s just beer you should be OK. Maybe it’s best not to remember if somebody was a total a**-hole. You give them the benefit of the doubt.

      Like

      • I remember one time I ran into a former student, said hi and asked about him and his life. We chatted a bit. As we were moving on, he said that he didn’t think I’d stop and talk to him because he was such an a**hole at school. I smiled even more and wished him well 🙂

        I’ve been teaching at this HS/Adult program for 13 years so I always hope for the best. I hope they have become productive citizens of the world and have tackled whatever challenges they faced while young.

        Because they might just be the next CENA nurse or health tech I’ll meet down the road! One can hope, right?

        Like

  23. The other day I saw someone I recognized, but couldn’t remember from where. I think she was having the same problem with me. We just kind of looked at each other, then went our separate ways, so we both looked stupid.

    Like

  24. This happened to me (the person I know / late recognition one) just a few days ago! I think I might have been caught mid-recognition face, though (the person was just turning away as the ‘Hey, I know you!’ lightbulb finally turned-on). Probably not a flattering place to be caught, either. A bit like the half frown / half complaining about not wanting to smile for the photo face.
    🙂

    Like

  25. You’re missing a critical aspect of your gym interlude. In fact you have no liability whatsoever for the failed greeting, because you were wearing headphones! No one is expected to have to interact with anyone in the “outside” world when wearing headphones. I hope you had the good sense to wear a great big conspicuous pair of Dr. Dre Beats so no one could miss them. Cherished Client had a lot of nerve flashing you a warm smile when you were in the zone and heading for the treadmill. She knows the rules, don’t be surprised if she sends you a small gift with an apologetic card in the next few days.

    Like

  26. amelie88 says:

    The other day I was waiting to be picked up at the train station and an older guy who was also waiting turned over to me and said “Hi, how are you?” to me. I looked over to him, trying to rack my brain to see if I knew this person but it took all of 2 seconds to realize I had never met or spoken to this person in my life. I automatically said “Hi” back. It was clear from my response I was super confused and the guy finally realized I was a Stranger, not a Friend. He then said, “Sorry, I thought you were somebody else!” “That’s okay,” I responded. “Ha, you were probably thinking, friendly stranger saying hi.” And then we awkwardly laughed about it. I didn’t mind too much, it happened in the friendly suburbs where everybody sort of knows each other. If it had happened on the way to work in Manhattan, I would have been very creeped out! But hey, these things happen all the time!

    Like

  27. momshieb says:

    I suggest that you go to a mirror and start working on your “serene-thoughtful-otherwordly-half-smile” right away. Watch “The Sound of Music” and focus on the Mother Superior. She looks like she is either a) having an internal conversation with God or b) thinking about her bunions. Either way, she looks like someone who can just float past you on a cloud of goodness, and never be judged.
    Try it! Seriously!

    Like

  28. blaggblog says:

    But just think: the smile could turn all those Uncomfortable Strangers into Good Friends!

    Like

  29. dorannrule says:

    The older I get, the more people I see who look familiar or who look exactly like someone else I know or knew. Maybe it’s another curse of aging. I like your idea of wearing a perpetual smile. If it makes me unrecognizable, there will be no expectations or disappointments from the unrecognized clients or friends. Starting now….. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Like

  30. flyingplatypi says:

    This used to happen to me all the time. Now I just greet everyone with a head nod and a “Sup”. If I know them, they’ll be used to it. If I don’t know them, they’ll just think I’m bad ass.

    Hugs!

    Valerie Nunez and the Flying Platypi

    Like

  31. pattisj says:

    Just keep smiling at them, Peg. Soon they will want to know you, if they don’t already. And then they’ll read your blog, and you’ll get Freshly Pressed! (again)

    Like

  32. Sandy Sue says:

    See, this is why I keep my eyes skillfully averted and maintain that “I’m too deep in brilliant ponderings to notice the human landscape” scowl. Soooo much easier.

    Like

  33. speaker7 says:

    This is why I never leave my house.

    Like

  34. I have to smile at everyone at the grocery store. Our store has moved everything around so my list that usually matches the order of the aisles just isn’t working anymore until I learn where everything is. For now, I smile and ask “Where in the world have they put the sugar now?” It’s hilarious because they don’t just smile, they laugh in agreement and we exchange a few more words. One lady even led me to the right aisle!!

    Like

  35. societycommentator says:

    I work in a school cafeteria & there was a sub for one of the cafeteria monitors today. One of the ladies I work with asked me if I knew who she was. I said that I remembered seeing her sub before, but like her I felt I should know her. I said that I thought maybe it was just that she looked like someone else. So I thought about it and I knew then who she looked like, but I couldn’t remember the person’s name, so I’m telling my co-worker who she is, who was able to remember the person’s name. Sometimes it takes a village!

    Like

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