The Best of Disability Blogs and Banter
The Sympathy Smile
The sympathy smile is that brief flash of kindness that you frequently get from slightly uncomfortable nondisabled people who are walking past you in the opposite direction. It’s one of those lesser-known social contracts triggered by eye contact, without which the sympathy smile cannot exist. But once eye contact is made, there it is! Like an involuntary reflex, the sympathy smile is flashed.
What’s so fascinating about the sympathy smile is that it holds myriad interpretations, all determined by the upbringing, personalities, perceptiveness and even genders of the two people involved in the transaction.
The sympathy smile can originate from any line of unspoken thought, depending on how we interpret them at the moment they occur. For example:
“Yeah, it totally sucks to be you. So I’m flashing this nice little smile so your life will suck just a little bit less for a second or two.”
Or how about: “You’ve noticed me noticing you, so I’ll put some positive spin on this with a gesture of reassurance. But I still think it would suck to be you.”
Or maybe: “I feel awkward now that we’ve made eye contact. Here’s a smile to mask my discomfort.”
It’s fun to be snarky about sympathy smiles, but annoyance and/or actual cynicism ultimately gets you nowhere. By their very nature, sympathy smiles are meant to diminish the same awkwardness that engenders them in the first place. They’re almost always a well-meaning exchange of everyday courtesy.
I wasn’t always as receptive to sympathy smiles, but after all these years I now receive them with a nod of friendly acknowledgement. It takes two seconds and nobody
— Jeff Shannon, “From Where I’m Sitting,” www.facingdisability.com
“I’m not comfortable with those people,” she said.
All I could get out of my mouth was, “Excuse me?”
Her discomfort was terribly obvious. She refused to make eye contact with me, barely glancing in my direction once or twice, but that was all. She stood there looking rather pathetic, pleading with my co-worker to help her instead.
When my eyes started to burn, I knew it was time for me to make my exit.
People have said some stupid crap to me. Retail and restaurant employees often choose to speak to whoever is accompanying me rather than me when I’m out and about. I’ve even had complete strangers get on their knees in the middle of a mall to pray for my healing, but I’ve never had someone outright refuse to speak to me because I’m sitting in a wheelchair. I was shocked.
I have no problem putting my finger on discrimination and prejudice when they’re directed at someone else; it’s harder to see it for what it is, though, when it’s me. But this was the big, ugly face of discrimination. I know that I face passive forms of discrimination almost every day, but it’s rarely blatant.
The next time you think to yourself, “We’re past all that discrimination stuff. What are people whining about?” please, remember this story.
— Alex Wegman, Life. Love. Food. Disability. Dreams. Dog. alexwegman.wordpress.com