When I was a first-year medical student, my classmates and I used to go down to the hospital cafeteria between lectures to buy snacks. The women from whom we bought them at the check-out counters were all young and sullen, rarely even glancing up at their customers as they rang up purchases. Their customers, in turn, seemed equally uninterested in them. So I decided one day I was going to get them to smile each time they rang up my purchases. To do this, I decided I'd simply start smiling at them myself.
"Hello!" I started saying each time I'd approach. At first, they actually shrank from me physically. But within a few days, they started to smile back at me. And as time passed and I continued to smile and say a bright hello each time I came before them, I noticed something interesting: most of the time they were still wearing the same lifeless expressions. I'd become their "on" switch. Their focus was so concrete that to the person in line right before me they remained their same apparently disinterested, unhappy selves. But as soon as I entered the narrow band of space immediately before them, their eyes would suddenly light up and their mouths would curve into a smile. And I could tell, though we never exchanged any words other than "hello" and they knew absolutely nothing about me, that they were genuinely glad to see me.
Such, I discovered, is the power of a smile, even between strangers. In the intervening years I've found myself wondering why most people don't smile at people they don't know. In observing my own reactions, I've noticed the following:
In the end, of course, I concluded that I really had no good reason not to smile at everyone. Certainly, it takes some amount of attention and energy. But in smiling at strangers, I acknowledge their humanity, and in doing that, in reminding myself of it, I promote peace. How? By bringing joy to others that's far out of proportion to the investment required—as I learned seven years after I first started my smiling experiment. I'd finished medical school and residency, and had returned to the University of Chicago as an attending physician. One day soon after I'd arrived, I went down to buy lunch in the same cafeteria. And when I approached the check-out line, I found myself greeted by a cashier I didn't at first even recognize who, wearing a happy, surprised smile, suddenly exclaimed in delight, "Where have you been?"
Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.