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Two years ago, I started “The Smile Project” because I became uncomfortable with “The Zombie Zone.” I realized that when I passed a person I did not know – in a parking lot, in a grocery store, at the gym, or while waiting in line to use the Ladies’ Room (because ladies, unlike gents, ALWAYS have to wait in line) – the two of us entered a Dead Zone where we were close enough to greet each other or at least acknowledge each other. But, of course, we didn’t do that because we were strangers. No, we passed with blank, dead looks on our faces. In other words, we became Zombies passing in the night. (Or in the day as the case might be.)

I didn’t like the Zombie Zone. I hated that split second when the approaching stranger was close enough to require turning my head to avoid eye contact. If I timed it wrong, and our eyes met, we became two strangers awkwardly wondering what to say to each other. If I timed it right and got my eyes out of there in time, we became two strangers awkwardly avoiding each other. None of this felt good to me.

I considered what to do. Throwing out a “Hi” seemed like a bad idea. The trouble with speaking was I’d be overheard, and I’d look and feel like a Real Idiot if I didn’t get a return greeting. And the odds were pretty high in California that random strangers were not going to greet me back.

So I decided to found “The Smile Project.” The rules were I had to smile at every stranger, young or old, male or female, who came within the Dead Zone. I’d wait until that moment when eye contact should be avoided, make contact, and smile. And then I would wait to see what happened. It was a no risk proposition because if my smile didn’t Undead the approaching Zombie stranger, no one but me would know.

I have enjoyed watching the reactions to “The Smile Project.” There are, of course, the Zombies who remain Undead and ignore me. (“Really, why is that strange woman smiling at me? Do you think she wants something? She’s kind of cute, but I don’t know her. Better get out of here fast where no one is smiling at me.”)

But most of the time, the reaction to my smile is a return smile. There is usually a startled moment in the beginning while my target tries to figure out why this strange woman is smiling at him or her, followed by a (1) a tentative return smile or (2) a big grin. Once in a while, my target will smile and say Hi, or Nice Day or even wave. A smile is the greatest icebreaker in the world.

The Smile Project is also very useful when Waiting in Line. Californians do not Wait in Line well. They whine, complain, and look for ways to cut. They do not simply settle in and accept the inevitable truth: there are other people on the planet and They are Ahead In Line. So here’s where The Smile Project comes in handy. I scope out my fellow Line Mates and smile at the one (or even two) who don’t break eye contact the minute they see me. I smile and say, “Nice earrings,” or “I love your boots,” or “Yeah, we love pepperoni pizza at our house, too.” Usually from my minimal effort, a conversation is born that makes me, at least, forget about having to wait. Other people love to tell their stories. And since I am a storyteller, I have two great passions: telling stories and listening to them. So passing the time listening to someone’s story is well worth the price of a smile.

The Smile Project is also like garlic to vampires when it comes to warding off angry stares. The grocery stores here have aisles wide enough for one and a half carts. That means if you stop your cart to select an item, you are automatically blocking traffic. And every turn from one aisle to the next is a blind turn because of the stuff they pile at the end of the aisles. Pulling your cart out in front of another person or asking someone to let you pass by can net you an angry glare because that person has just been forced to recognize There Are Other People In the World; and right now, in particular, Those Other People are in Their Own Personal grocery store. However, throwing out a random smile usually gets me a smile in return and often a pleasant verbal exchange about the need for smaller carts or wider aisles. You can see a glare melt under the shine from a smile. You really can.

The Smile Project is also a godsend in Costco where I am absolutely the Only Human Pushing a Shopping Cart and Watching Where I am Going. Haven’t you noticed that everyone in Costco is pushing his or her cart with his or her head sideways (think The Exorcist) looking for free food? Just smile when they run into you.

I invite you to try The Smile Project for yourself. It is totally no cost and very low risk. The worst that can happen is you will encounter a Zombie who likes being Undead. But not always. And something really magical happens when the Dead Zone vanishes because your smile has made a stranger’s eyes go from blank to warm. I didn’t expect much when I started The Smile Project, but it has been more than worth the effort.

Founder of the Smile Project

Founder of The Smile Project

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