Ode to Smiling at Strangers

The second glance, the eyebrows raised ever so slightly. The millisecond of disbelief, quickly melting into surprised delight. The little flash of warmth in the chest. “That stranger just smiled at me.”

And flustered cheeks rise like bread in the oven. 

How about that little gasp in your heart when an especially attractive someone randomly beams at you? And the miniature fairy tale that successively plays itself at high speed in your mind? Afterwards, you go about your day all giddy. Smiling is the most effortless magic trick in the world. 

And if you’re like me and chronically torpedoing the traffic on your bike, a smile is your best bet. Regardless of whether someone’s road rage was your fault or not, it is almost automatically softened if you’ve already sneaked a smile at them.

The force of a smile translates and travels through layers – from a stranger’s smile to yours, and from there to your mood. A curious phenomenon, but how could it be explained? There must be plenty of psychological, biological and cultural reasons, but for now, those will be recklessly ignored in favor of a momentary indulgence in affect theory (my favorite intersection between spiritual shit and confident, pompous academia). Disclaimer: pure speculation ahead, for the subject is remarkably slippery. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg’s The Affect Theory Reader describes affect to be found in the “intensities that pass body to body”, “resonances that circulate” and traverse “skin envelopes” (1), blurring their boundaries, like water evaporating into mist, through which birds of affect fly without any noticeable splash. As the authors explain:

“Affect, at its most anthropomorphic, is the name we give to those forces – visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion – that serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world’s apparent intractability.”

Seigworth and Gregg, The Affect Theory Reader

If you’ll allow me a brief moment of guesswork, maybe it’s something in a stranger that invites your smile. Maybe, on a level below consciousness, you sense that they could use one, before you even decide to smile. To take it even further, maybe smiles are just the visible results of affect that blows through us like wind, stirring up our moods, “driving us toward movement.” The way affect is described here is reminiscent of how various animated films like Disney’s Pocahontas or Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away depict wind – as a force that elevates, inspires, bringing about almost tangible change in characters’ experience.

Whether our decisions to smile are even ours or directly attributable to affect requires way more than my current competence, so I’ll leave it up to someone wiser to discuss… However, it’s safe to say affect is present in every reciprocated smile. Those meaningful moments feel like ever so briefly inhabiting someone’s soul, and allowing them into yours. They are small doses of the feeling of being acknowledged by another being, who, by a simple twist of fate happened to cross your path while making their way through the universe, and sent a glimmer of joy your way. A genuine smile is equivalent to wishing good things for someone. In the words of Antony Pinol, a smile is a “celebration of complete equality between two human beings.”

One can hardly talk about smiling without talking about the eyes. Smiling with your eyes, also known as a Duchenne-smile, has gained even more meaning in the mask-era we are experiencing. You’ve surely come across a supermarket situation, where you and a stranger with a friendly gaze negotiated an alternative for bumping your shopping carts. It’s marvelous to witness how the eye and eyebrow action is taking over the expressive functions of the hidden half of the face.

The eyes, they say, are the window to the soul. The Finnish version of the phrase draws a curious contrast: “the eyes are the mirror of the soul.” How about an intersection: think of eyes as a one-way mirror – reflective on one side and transparent on the other – you won’t see the person observing you from behind the glass unless you get very close, or know how to look. This, unfortunately, leads to many only looking for their own reflection in you to stare at, with no intention of actually seeing inside. A rather lonely thought – but that’s what living often feels like. Like being one of the gigantic robots in the Gainax series Neon Genesis Evangelion; a clumsy vessel with a tiny, vulnerable human hiding in the shadows of the cockpit, attempting to pull the right levers and flip the right switches, in order to come across as this or that. The mind can be a lonely place. And that feeling of isolation can be emphasized by the anonymity of a busy metropolis, where there’s more leaving than staying.

However, smiling at strangers is one way to turn that anonymity of that busy metropolis into a sea of opportunities, instead of being intimidated by it. Gifting smiles is like weaving delicate spider nets of affect wherever you go, graceful gossamer strings catching light and gently connecting you to every living thing around you. Upon smiling at a stranger, a sunny version of you becomes a speck of color in the masterpiece their life is constantly becoming. They’ll take your smile and turn it into a new one for yet another stranger, and this is how things transform and move through the world. Smiling is like leaving footprints – it’s life-affirming. 

This and cover art by the amazingly creative @jademarnpc

Speaking of strangers, I have a thing for alternative ways of referring to things, which comically accentuate the utter weirdness of everything. Why say ‘human’, for example, when you can use grotesque descriptions such as “ghost in a meat suit”, or expressions simplified to the core such as “carbon unit”? These highlight the absurdity of existing as a conscious being in a world where no one has any idea what they’re doing (if you claim that you do, have you noticed where you are? To quote the greatest metaphysical YouTube poet of our time, Exurb1a, “you’re standing on a living spaceship!”). But then there are also precious periphrases: we are “little unique prisms that the same life-light is passing through”, as one of my favorite people once said, with eyes full of life-light.

Okay uhm, cool…but what’s your point? you may ask. Well, we often get so caught up in our heads that we forget just “how rare and beautiful it is / to even exist.” The periphrases discussed above act as reminders, bringing occasional moments of clarity and wonder, which are reason enough to smile at a stranger. Why not brighten someone’s day just because? Heck, there are gorgeous mysteries constantly yelling at us from every direction. And look at you, you’re one of them! A microcosm, a synecdoche: a tiny summary of everything that is. The thought alone invites a smirk. Moreover, as Seigworth and Gregg assert, “affect is a persistent proof of a body’s never less than ongoing immersion in and among the world’s obstinacies and rhythms” (1). This ‘ongoing immersion’ can be taken to support the idea that every thing is a part of everything. Thus, in smiling at a stranger, you’re also smiling at yourself. 

This line of thought about connectedness is also present in Maya Angelou’s words: “nothing human is alien to me.” Whatever ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you see someone do, you have the potential to do the same. That’s also why existing can sometimes be absolutely terrifying. This is where random smiles from strangers come into picture. Although they may not be a magical fix-all, an unexpected smile can be an encouraging pat on the shoulder, a helpful hand pulling you back from the depths of your darkness, a kind reminder of the present moment. The power of being acknowledged, and basking for a moment in a shared ray of sincere good wishes, truly is magnificent. A low cost and everything to gain; smiling is my kind of lottery. 

Make it your mischievous mission to infect as many unsuspecting strangers with a grin as you can. Be generous and indiscriminate (unless they tell you to smile, in which case, rebel). It feels like a superpower. Like casting a short, sweet spell on someone. The simplest recipe and the resources endless: you’re constantly carrying them in the front row of the breathtakingly beautiful combination of atoms that you are.


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