Monday, December 13, 2010

Smile like you mean it

Last weekend was my staff Christmas party at a local establishment and among the attenders were the head custodian, and one of the after school janitors, Alex, who cleans my classroom. I admittedly dodged the two at the beginning of the night, especially Alex because I felt inexplicably shy seeing him outside the four walls of the school for the first time. My partner teacher, Annie, who shares my room, is more the social butterfly between the two of us, so I let her chat them up to make them feel welcome amongst the sea of very homogeneous all-teacher crowd.

Some minutes later, Annie and I happened to meet in the bathroom where, finding we were alone, she shared with me what Alex had told her during their conversation: "Annie, you and Miss T. are the only two people in your hallway who talk to me. Most people don't even say 'hello' when I come into their rooms to clean. You don't know how I appreciate it!" Reflecting on this shocking revelation, Annie and I got sort of melt-y for a second,then resolved to get Alex a nice gift for Christmas to return the thanks.

Before you go thinking this is the essay portion of my application for Mother Theresa of the Year Award, let me just say that the one thought I've been entertaining on this matter throughout the week is this: When it comes to random acts of kindness, I'm a total fraud.

You know those lovely people you pass on the bike path who you've never seen in your life, but light up at the sight of you and greet you like they're reuniting with a long lost friend? Yeah, that's not me. I'm the one with head down, pretending to fiddle with her iPod, avoiding eye contact at all costs. I'm not bubbly. In fact, I'm quite the anti-bubble. Just ask my close friends.

But a few years ago I became quite the con artist. When I started working at BMS, I made a point of greeting every person I passed in the hall by name and with a smile that could give face cramps. I'll openly admit that, as Fresh Meat in a very cuthroat work environment, it was for the sake of getting some leverage with others. Some six months later, I felt much more at home and no longer needed to put on the facade to make a good impression. By this point, however, I had picked up on the constant tension, negativity, and ill-will fueled by certain individuals and blanketing the entire school. Floored by the unbelievable gall and nastiness that seemed contagious in this environment, I decided I'd be darned if I let myself succumb to it. The best way to combat the disease, I figured, was to keep on smiling.

In our rough-and-tumble society, smiling has almost become a sign of weakness. Smiling when there's no seemingly no good reason to, may suggest one is simple or even mentally deficient. The right to 0utwardly express the emotions we feel on the inside has become so socially acceptable that the notion we might force an expression to change what we feel on the inside seems silly.

In my high school AP Psychology class, I remember learning about various researched theories suggesting that our facial expressions can affect our emotional moods through physiological changes in our body, feedback from those in our environment who perceive our expressions, or both. The linked article below summarizes some of those studies which all lend to the idea that, even if we aren't feeling particularly cheerful any given day, smiling in spite of the fact may actually work some magic.

After day-in, day-out of grinning and greeting everyone in my path at BMS, I definitely began to see the fruits of my labor. Not only did I find myself in much better moods during the school day, but I found that the reputation I was building served my relationships with others. While internal feuds were constantly waging between staff, I found myself blissfully removed from most of them. In the rare cases where I happened to come into the middle of a conflict, I had enough alliances that my name was quickly cleared. All of this served as ample positive reinforcement to keep the smile strapped on even when my thoughts were the farthest thing from smile-worthy.

So it was that these hurried, mechanical, obligatory greetings I tossed Alex's way whenever I happened to cross paths with him were received as expressions of respect and high regard. This knowledge, as a result, made me want to reach out to him in a more sincere and heartfelt manner to affirm someone really deserving of respect. Just a pleasant face and some effortless "Hello's" did all that.

All of this is by no means a call to faking it through life. In fact, one of the most unbecoming character flaws in my book, is insincerity. What I am suggesting is that perhaps we might give a pleasant disposition a bit more of a chance for the sake of (if nothing else) some more social harmony and goodwill towards men (Something many Asian cultures got savvy to long ago).

In Pastor Rick Warren's 40 Days of Love DVD study, he discusses the realities of carrying out the command to "Love thy neighbor" with those who don't make us feel particularly warm and gushy inside. In one segment, Warren clarifies that loving others is not always hugs, kisses, and showering them with pretty words. Bare minimum, it is the ability to desire their wellbeing and to at least want to like them. In many ways then, fulfilling the commandment starts with a forced change in mind...and perhaps a forced change in attitude.

The beautiful thing is if you work hard enough to change your mind, Someone might just change your heart in time.

Your assignment for today:

1. Choose one day and make a concerted effort to warmly greet those around you with a smile or "Hello" that entire day. (Yes, even if it kills you.) Observe the responses of people around you and the general state of your mood. Notice anything different?

2. Eric Hoffer, American social writer, once said, "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength." Attune yourself to some of the particularly rude and nasty people you come into contact with on a daily basis and attempt to put yourself into their shoes for a moment. Are they just people with pensions for pure evil, or might they have some unfortunate life circumstances (marital problems, poor self-esteem, etc.) that might make their behavior explainable?

Class dismissed.

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