Social experiment: Bringing myself closer to smiling
Last summer, I ran a social experiment: No matter who I passed in the street, I had to force myself to make eye-contact with them. You can read the full story about that experiment (and the surprising results) here. The main rules for this experiment were only that I had to make initial eye-contact, and I couldn’t be selective about who I connected with.
This was a very rewarding experiment. I learned a lot simply by committing myself to doing something positive that I wouldn’t normally do. I didn’t set any additional rules, because that would have complicated things, and this first step seemed like enough to take on for now. Thinking about it further would simply have complicated things and made me less likely to stay committed.
General Rule #1: If you’re trying to change a habit or take on something new, keep the terms of your goal as simple as possible, while still remaining true to the aim of achieving that goal.
Based on how much I got out of such a simple exercise, I knew that one of the things I wanted to do this Spring was conduct another experiment. The first couple of weeks, while suffering from a lack of inspiration, I wasn’t sure what this experiment would be. I wasn’t concerned that I didn’t have something in mind – it was enough at the time to know that I wanted to run something like this and leave it at that.
I ended up with the appropriate experiment after watching TV with Bay, of all things. She mentioned how Patrick Jane, the main protagonist in the Mentalist, had a good bemused look, and that he and I share a similar smile. I like Patrick Jane. He’s charming, and he probably gets away with more than he should because he’s got such a pleasant and charming disposition. Lastly, I liked the concept that lies behind a look of bemusement on someone’s face. It’s like they know something that you don’t. It’s the hint of a smile, ready to break free and show teeth at any moment. It’s a little mysterious.
“I’m bemused quite often… why aren’t I showing that more?”
That was the question on my mind a few weeks ago. So, I decided that would be what I was going to work on for the rest of the term. I wasn’t concerned with actually feeling more bemused – I just wanted to practice the look more often so that I was comfortable having it on my face.
So, as odd as this may sound, I sat in front of a mirror for a few minutes and trying to figure out what the look on my face was that signalled this emotion. I played with it a bit, and then took the bus back home to Vancouver that Sunday. If you had been sitting across from me on the bus that day, you would have probably thought “That guy is nuts”. I sat patiently and calmly, and settled in to my look. It felt really awkward. If you’re not used to holding your face or your body in a certain position, you feel like everyone is watching you when you do it. In reality, you’re just hyper-conscious of how you look. No one is paying any more attention to you than they otherwise would, but you’re going out of your way to pay attention to every single sidelong glance and incidental eye-contact that sweeps across your field of view.
This is actually a very interesting piece of psychology at work known as the spotlight effect. I see this most often in the dance class that I teach (and participate in as a student). Literally every single person in the studio is completely focused on themselves in the mirror, while simultaneously thinking “Oh my god, I just screwed that up and everybody saw me!” (oblivious to the obvious irony here).
Whereas the eye contact I had sustained last summer was typically brief and fleeting, I noticed right away that holding a look of bemusement on my face somehow made me feel less vulnerable when making eye contact with people (naturally I kept my newly-acquired habit of initiating eye contact throughout this). I felt like, even if we were holding eye contact, the look on my face told them “don’t judge me so quickly – I know something that you don’t”. Whether or not they actually felt this way, I have no idea, but that is never the point when we’re talking about our own psychology.
General Rule #2: When talking about your own psychology, it doesn’t matter what other people think. All that matters is what you think.
The next thing that I noticed was that while I was initially forcing myself to hold a certain look on my face, over time, I really started to feel more bemusement. The organic process started to take over, and my body started to take the natural cue that my face was giving it. I knew something that my friend-in-eye-contact didn’t know!
This last point was very intriguing. I had read most of Malcolm Gladwell’s books last summer (interesting books, but should be taken with a grain of salt), and one of the things he’d mentioned in Blink (I think it was Blink) was a story about two academics doing research into the many expressions that a human’s face can show. Most specifically, the academics noticed that on the days where they were both taking turns practicing the unhappy facial expressions, they went home feeling awful. After realizing that they both were feeling this way, the conclusion appeared obvious. To some extent, your physiology can influence your psychology (and I’m sure it doesn’t require too much of a stretch of your imagination to imagine times where the reverse has been true).
General Rule #3: Be aware of the look on your face, and the attitude that your body language is projecting. It affects more than you realize.
The last thing I noticed was my favourite. With my new baseline having become the hint of a smile, my face was naturally closer to becoming a smile than it had been in the past. As a kid, my dad had gotten me a book called “How To Make Anyone Fall in Love With You”. ”It’s a good book!” he said, as I joked about it. The gift was an interesting one, as I was dating a girl at the time (no longer though, obviously), and it’s kind of a weird gift to get from your Dad. But, it was heartfelt, and he was right about the book – it was good.
The author spent a good deal talking about the power of eye-contact and smiling at strangers, and how simply knowing someone else is interested in you increases your own likelihood of finding them attractive. Think back to the recent past. You can probably remember times where you found out someone thought you were attractive and your own feelings were elevated for them as a result.
Walking around as a young, hormone-packed man, I couldn’t figure out how to smile at someone without it seeming like a huge leap. I have a fairly animated face, and a pretty big open-mouthed smile (I’ve been described in the past as “Hey, you’ve got a lot of teeth”) – it’s a big leap to go from plain-faced to maximum smile.
When walking by people, I have tried to make eye-contact and smile at them, but it felt awkward and forced. This time, none of that was the case. With a bemused look on my face, I was already half-way toward smiling. The natural progression if I caught someone’s eyes was for my smile to widen.
I loved this! Finally I felt comfortable smiling at people that I didn’t know! This ability to directly engage people and to smile at them if we sustain eye contact may read trite, but the concept is a very powerful one. For one, I simply felt better. –But why? I suppose that part of it is simply feeling good to not feel the need to furtively shift my glance when I make eye-contact with someone. (Don’t want them to think I’m staring at them!)
“Got a staring problem?!” – that was a cry I heard frequently as a kid when I had accidentally caught the glance of someone more cocksure and secure than I. But now, I no longer wanted to pretend that I wasn’t looking at people – I actually found myself wanting them to know that I was looking at them. If they did realize that I looking at them, I was comfortable holding my gaze, and even sharing a smile with them if they were willing to go that far with me. If not, then I simply returned to my half-smile, and carried on.
With my default closer to a smile than my old deadpan expression, a smile that was not returned also felt less awkward. Instead of my own perception being that I had been shut down, I felt like people that saw me smile at them but didn’t return it had a thought process that went something like “Did that guy just smile at me? I don’t think so… he’s kind of half-smiling now.. Did he smile at me? Does he know something that I don’t know? Why is he smiling at me? I’m intrigued!”.
Being the person that is willing to fully engage someone gives you an odd sense of humble confidence. The connection that I am seeking to share with someone isn’t a challenge – it’s an invitation. I’m extending a part of myself to you as we walk by each other and offering the opportunity to share in something brief together. If that stranger is not willing to engage, then that is their, but I walk away from the encounter knowing that I put myself out there. I exposed a small part of my self, and came back from it just fine. Every time you successfully do this, you’ll find that you come back a little bit stronger, a little bit humbled, and a little bit better prepared to try it again.
What really underlies the way I was feeling is the most important thing to take away from this. By putting more of myself out there, I was more likely to have that positivity come back. Projecting a warm positive attitude does not have some magic power over people that makes them return the same. But it does have a psychological power to it. When you’re presented with warmth, you find yourself much more inclined to return that warmth. When you see someone willingly exposing a bit of vulnerability, you find yourself a little more willing to do the same.
General Rule #4: The more of yourself you’re willing to put out into the world, the more you’ll receive back from it. The person that risks nothing ends up losing everything.
And so that’s where things currently sit. As far as the terms I set for myself, my experiment continues until the end of the term, but it has already been a success, and now that I’ve opened a gate to engage with people, I have no desire to close it. Sharing yourself with people, in whatever quantity you can make available, is a wonderful feeling.
I made things easy this time. Here are the four general lessons or rules to take away from my experiment:
- General Rule #1: If you’re trying to change a habit or take on something new, keep the terms of your goal as simple as possible, while still remaining true to the aim of achieving that goal.
- General Rule #2: When talking about your own psychology, it doesn’t matter what other people think. All that matters is what you think.
- General Rule #3: Be aware of the look on your face, and the attitude that your body language is projecting. It affects more than you realize.
- General Rule #4: The more of yourself you’re willing to put out into the world, the more you’ll receive back from it. The person that risks nothing ends up losing everything.