A week of smiling at strangers
Another performative week:
Week 28 was our second "performative week", which means we would purposely execute some “acts” to track them.
After a week of being nicer, we decided on a simpler one: smiling to strangers!
I tracked only my smiles to people I’ve never met before: not to acquaintances, not to waiters or waitresses or salesmen I was having any kind of interaction to, and not to people I engaged in a conversation with or that I’ve been introduced to:
I logged my smiles to perfect strangers.
As for my weekly experiment, I was interested in seeing people’s reactions to my performative smiles, so I also reported if they smiled back, if they didn’t notice me and my smiles, if they pretended they didn’t notice and looked away (and I had many of these ones!), and if they for some reasons smiled at me first.
After my first 2 or 3 attempts to smile, I also realized my ‘grins’ came out not always the same, so I added a new category to my tracks: how was my smile? Was it a very good one? Was it genuine or maybe people could tell it wasn’t?
I unfortunately then had to add a couple of other categories:
- I wanted to smile but was embarrassed,
- I though I should smile but I just didn’t because I was tired of tracking.
In fact, as much it sounded very much fun in the beginning, it turned out to be incredibly hard and pretty exhausting towards the end of the week!!
(One person stopping me after I smiled and asked “do we know each other?” after that I considered to stop smiling alltogether)
My smiley drawing:
Visually, I see smiles as a rounded entity, so I tried to work on this idea with my elements on my postcard.
I primarily divided my smiles per geographic area:
- smiles in Manhattan are on the left side,
- smiles in Brooklyn are on the right side,
- and the smiles I delivered during my daily walks on the Williamsburg bridge are of course on the horizontal connecting part.
I thought it was interesting to see if there were any differences in people I would smile to and in their reactions in different city districts.
Every element is represented through the type of smile it was according to my categorizations, and feature some more details: the basic demographic of my stranger and some general information about what I was doing in that moment.
I like my postcard, especially because I normally don’t work with circular shapes, it’s compelling to try to work with visuals you generally are not comfortable with!
Stefanie’s card, and my reflection on smiles
Stefanie hated this week more than me, I guess, as you can tell from the back of her card and from the massive data void of protest she performed at the end of her week (…Stef, at least you made ME smile with your card! :))
If you look at our data collections, they are pretty similar this week: we both tracked our strangers' reactions, we both reported where we were and what the situation was, I love when this happens! (Because - disclaimer - we never talk about what type of data to actually collect every week, we just agree upon a similar topic, and purposely leave the data gathering open to be interpreted by the two of us).
The week after this, I found myself quite influenced by our performative smily week.
Sometimes, especially the following Monday or Tuesday, and even if I was tracking a different topic, when encountering a stranger my head would automatically float up from the easier downward gaze and my lips hinted a grin. I found it to be a very nice - even if short - consequence of this week.
I also reflected a little bit on the ‘honesty' of my smiles: to produce a genuine smile I think we must authentically feel like smiling; to smile at a stranger in a real way requires to put together some kind of true feelings for them; or at least this is how I see it now and after this exercise.
I found it easier to smile at good-looking people, for example (shame on me!), or at people who were wearing a relatively calm and positive face, or at people around my age and whom I could feel or guess had something in common with me.
On a positive note, in many moments of this week, I sensed a sort of joy when my strangers smiled back at me, they felt like small and brief sparkles of happiness during my days, and I was wondering whether they felt the same.
On to a week of performative smiling at all the strangers we passed (or all that we were able to muster up the courage to smile at). I hated this week, because I don’t like smiling at people in the street in London. Sure, smiling at people might be socially acceptable and encouraged in a smaller city, but if you smile at someone in London people will likely think that either 1: you are crazy or 2: you are hitting on them. This whole week I felt uncomfortable doing this, as though I was breaking into people’s personal time, ruining their private moments they try to snatch for themselves in a crowded city.
I didn’t smile at everyone I met but just waited for a good opening to do so. But I felt so shy, regardless. However, this week’s data-gathering experiment made me aware of the very transactional nature of communication and courtesy that there is in a big city … I saw a woman next to me in a shop pay for something and leave without even making eye contact with the person serving them, and it felt so clinical, and it made me hope quietly to myself that while I might be a little shy and reserved, I’m not like that.
Anyhow, I started to dread this task. And then on the Saturday evening I went to a show at Brixton Academy (Caribou + Koreless, in case you were wondering), where I made the total schoolgirl’s error of drinking too much beer in a super-crowded venue of thousands of people where, of course, standing in the middle of the aforementioned thousands I realised I needed to pee. This then involved pushing my way through a croud of unmoving, unsmiling grumpy concertgoers just to make it to the ladies’ toilet. I smiled the entire way, looking incredibly friendly and apologetic, yet was receiving no smiles in return from the hipster horde. At this point, I yelled ‘screw all of you’ to everyone in my mind, and ended the smiling project in protest. Sunday, I stuck to my protest and travelled to Cambridge by train and back, all the while luxuriating in the glorious feeling of being anonymous, settling back into my seat, and not smiling any anyone at all. It felt brilliant.
However, while I disliked this week of data gathering / performance, in the following weeks I noticed that I felt less fearful about smiling at strangers. It’s as though the terrible ordeal made me realise that it actually wasn’t that difficult to just be a little more open and friendly, and that there was nothing to fear. This week’s task has stuck with me, and now I actively enjoy smiling at people I am engaging with, trying to be more friendly (though I don’t feel obliged to smile at those walking about the city in their own private worlds, as they are likely there for a reason).
I knew that Giorgia would be better at this task than me, mainly because I am more willing to give up (as shown above) if something annoys me, whereas Giorgia is better at sticking to things. Anyhow, I am so impressed at how instead of tiptoeing around the project like I did she dove right in and smiled at lots of people I was too afraid to smile at.