To Smile or Not to Smile?

Recently my friend M asked me if I preferred to be smiled at, or to not be smiled at by passersby. He went on, jokingly: "when I pass someone in a wheelchair - do I smile with teeth? Without teeth? Do I nod a little? Do I say hi? What do you prefer people do?" As the guy whose idea it was for me to begin this blog, M is hardly ignorant to the fact that I cannot be the spokesperson for all people in wheelchairs. With that said, I also recognized that he was asking out of genuine awareness of his surroundings and of others.

My gut reaction was to laugh at him (actually I did laugh at him), but also to say "I prefer that people do to me whatever they would do to anyone else they passed by on the street." But I knew that this isn't the way the majority of our society works, no matter how much I would like to wish that it does. It just doesn't; and because of that I also knew this would not be a sufficient enough answer for him, or for me. The fact of the matter is that a person in a wheelchair typically draws attention, for one reason or another. Once that attention is drawn, by the unspoken actions, social etiquette, gestures, etc, well there is a lot that we can do with that attention. What we do with that attention can be quickly manipulated into something that can be taken as negative, or something that can be taken as positive. Here I will try to differentiate the two:

In my mind, whether wheelchair-user or not, smiling at someone you pass by is just something friendly people do. Despite living in the city all my life, I have been the recipient and giver of many smiles to folks I will only see for .0008 seconds. But what's beneath the smile? It also is an acknowledgement that you and I are in this same space for just a moment. I am acknowledging that the other person is someone to be treated like a human being, with respect and courtesy. I am also saying: I assume the best of you, and you should assume the best of me.

But again, the majority of our society doesn't function in the realm of Sandy's-fantasy-fairy-tale-land. I'm not sure that everyone who smiles at me is assuming the best of me, no matter how high of a pedestal I may have put them on in my head - for those brief .00009 seconds we saw each other.

When someone says "hi" to me I always say "hi" back. This isn't just because I was raised this way, it's because, I think, in some ways I am proving to that stranger that I will probably never see again - that I am not only a human being, but also capable of normal social interactions. Maybe this stranger wasn't sure I am able to communicate, maybe this person wants to be my next partner in crime, maybe this person is just saying "hi." And 96% of the time the latter is usually the case. The other 4% of the time people will force this opening wider and launch into it: "Can I ask you a question, I was just wondering..." (And that's the subject for another blog post).

If people don't say "hi" to me, or they don't smile at me, or even look in my direction -- I'm not about to go give them the hairy eyeball at the back of their heads. I will just assume that the individual is busy, or lost in thought, or in a hurry, or just isn't that kind of person. I am not offended and don't think any less of the individual, the person is just one of another hundred human bodies I will pass in my day. The other angle on this issue I brought up to M was that location matters. Where you are in the country, or in the world(!) makes a huge difference in terms of what is socially appropriate behavior when two strangers pass each other by. For instance: people are nicer in D.C. than they are in Boston or New York City. Getting a "hi how are you?" Is not uncommon in D.C. Getting a "hi how are you?" in Boston or NYC is almost borderline creepy.

Can we get back to Sandy's-fantasy-fairy-tale-land? Just because it doesn't exist right now doesn't mean that there's no hope of it ever coming into reality. So why not? Why not make eye contact with strangers? Why not just smile at people? Why not assume the best of one another?

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