Why Are Strangers Smiling at Us?

By |2017-01-13T20:42:00+00:00March 6th, 2015|
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smilesI was out to brunch recently waiting with a crowd of other hungry customers for tables to open up. My friend and I, both wheelchair users, received the usual number of stares and glares when out in public, especially in pairs. But I also noticed people looking at us with strange, stiff smiles. Most were women of a certain age, smartly dressed and obviously trying to be politically correct. When they smiled, they tried to make eye contact while quickly nodding, as if to say, “good for you, girls, for hanging out with us regular folk.”

One thing I know for sure it that these weren’t the genuine, warm smiles we receive from people we know and love. Rather, the brunch-goers wore the smiles like armor – a “friendly” barrier separating them and their discomfort from us and their perception of what our lives must be like.

As it turns out, I’m not being overly sensitive. Studies have suggested that “humans can easily fake smiles when they aren’t feeling any positive emotions. … A real smile is an automatic process. It involves muscles that are not involved when you make a fake smile. All smiles involve muscles around the mouth, but only real smiles involve muscles around the eye.”

And as for the ability to recognize fake smiles, the study says that “rejection may boost the ability to figure out when someone else is faking an emotion. It may have something to do with a primitive need to fit in with others and to detect what they’re really thinking.” Who better to fit that description than wheelchair users?

There’s not much I can do about a fake smile aimed my way. But I will, in the future, try to respond with a real smile. For as Mother Teresa once said, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” Real ones, not fake.