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Boston Smiling and Eye Contact Meetup

Carbonated Wit is poised to carry out General Expression’s plan, and proposes the following activity:

Boston Smiling And Eye Contact Meetup!

Friday April 26

I will get on the Red Line at Alewife at the next train after 6:15pm. I’ll get on the last car of the train. At every red line station in to Park, I will get out. I will then get on the last car of the next train. At Park I’ll change direction and go outbound.

I’ll have my spinning because people love asking me about it; I’ll be spinning fine light blue yarn. I will be open, smiling, and making eye contact. Join me!

I really, really, really want to read a guest-post of what this shindig was like afterwards. Really really.

P.S. I know things are not cool with the State of Awkwardtown, and I am not trying to pretend they are or abdicate responsibility for that by the abrupt subject change and closing of threads. But I gotta step away. I am not making it better right now and I don’t want to make it worse. This is a cool thing that deserves to happen. Go forth and smile at Boston, Boston.

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About JenniferP

Chicago filmmaker, teacher, and blogger.

65 comments on “Boston Smiling and Eye Contact Meetup

  1. Hah! My original plan had been meant to emphasize the creepiness if everyone really did smile and make eye contact all the time, which was rather pointed and curmudgeonly, and sounds like the opposite of this plan. Less socio-political commentary, more friendliness and healing is fine with me! I will try to be there, but teach on Friday afternoons so can make no promises!

    • Yeah, it’s a thing that can go either way. To be creepy, it really helps to wear the same outfit and offer people an innocuous and yet vaguely disturbing object.

      Whereas I am thinking about “hm. What is the cheapest and easiest way to distribute free spindle-type-objects with small bits of fluff?”

      …………..perhaps that will be creepy! Also I wonder how many times we’ll be searched.

  2. You know, in light of the month the city’s been having, I say it’ll probably do it some good to get an extra dose of friendliness.

    (Besides. I don’t know about you guys, but I often make eye contact and smile with strangers to make myself feel better. When you do it, they *usually* smile back, and that makes me feel less awful about myself on bad days.)

    • Yup. I do that too. ESPECIALLY if someone’s just been randomly shitty to me in the street; cause I feel like the world needs an injection of happiness.

      I suspect it of being one of the few (only?) good things about all the fat person stereotypes, that I can be relatively confident that most people won’t be threatened by a fat chick smiling at them briefly.

    • Yes: very frequently I do the “smile at strangers” thing because it makes me feel good to smile, and it makes me feel double good when someone catches my eye and smiles back. I don’t want to talk to them, probably, but that moment of silent shared good cheer is golden. It’s kind of a way of saying, hey, I’m a human being, and I see that you are also a human being, and life is hard… but we can still have a moment of happiness, here and there. And this is one of those moments.

      I hadn’t realized that I do it until I saw this thread, though!

      • Yes, precisely. I’ve done it so long that it’s basically second nature now: If I happen to catch someone’s eye, I’ll flash a smile and then turn away back to whatever I was doing. It’s a, “Hey, dude, I acknowledge that you are a person, and I am a person, and there is no ill-will between us” gesture, I think.

    • I used to do that, but then I started getting excessive amounts of attention from creepers, so I stopped :(

    • I need to try that – I am terrible at eye contact with people I don’t know. I just refuse to do it in almost all cases, especially if I don’t know why the eye contact is being made. (like, I am holding the door for you).

  3. We can disagree and discuss issues at length and STILL enjoy your posts and good ideas, Jennifer. No need for us all to feel bad because of the emotions in these posts. We come here because you are a deeply profound advice columnist and you don’t dismiss us or try to push us away with terrible puns. Please keep doing what you do. xo This is a fun idea and one I wouldn’t mind trying on the Blue Line in Chicago.

  4. As a healing thing, this sounds great! And as a “this is creepiness” thing, maybe in another place/another time, this sounds great! Finally, with regards to the state of things in Awkward Town, I would like to note that the comments on the last comment-able entry number 666. This made me giggle, because even in the midst of…everything going on there, the final comment number was THE COMMENT NUMBER OF THE BEAST. I hope at least a few other people can get a chuckle out of that.

  5. I am de-lurking to express my deep, deep support of and love for this column. I am sorry that things are tricky right now. You do such an excellent job moderating this column, and I’ve learned so much from reading your advice and the insightful comments of the Awkward Army. I’m so grateful.

    • You guys are really, really kind, but the praise and kudos are stressing me out as much as the other stuff right now. There’s no need, just, have a good time in Boston, and we’ll work out the rest later.

      • Hey, Captain. Jedi hugs. You need them too.

        You made a mistake. So do we all. What we’re not all so good at is doing what we can to put them right afterwards. You did that, and it took some guts.

        Not sure what else I can offer other than all the Jedi hugs you need, but… well, I’m here, for whatever that may be worth.

  6. They did this in my town once. It was sooooo creepy, lol. Some even went so far as offering hugs and flowers. All the while smiling. I can still hear the screaming of the lambs…

    Hope you have a blast! It’s guaranteed to get attention.

    • “Come, come and sit with us. Here, would you like some cake? We’ve just made some tea. Have some tea. Have some, have some.”
      *smile*

      Holy crap, just typing that creeped me out a little!

    • Strangers who want to hug me…no go. But people just being pleasant I’m down with. I hope we get a report about the day!

    • I live near a college campus, so I see a lot of ‘free hugs’ signs, and normally I avoid them as I’m not even really inclined to hug people I do know well, but once there was a very obnoxious preacher who would shout about damnation at one of the major crosswalks (and watch out if your shorts were ‘too short’ you ‘hussy temptress’) and one day some stood at the other side of the crosswalk with a sign that said something like: “Hugs for so-called ‘sinners’” And I actually went ahead and got a hug from a stranger and found it very relieving, since walking by someone yelling at you about your lifestyle can be pretty exhausting, even when you mostly tune it out.

      tl;dr Random acts of kindness! Sometimes just what’s needed in the moment.

  7. I liked this as a joke the first time around, and I like it even better as an actual event in Boston right now. It feels like people all over the city have been making an extra effort to be kind lately. I’ll be there if I can!

  8. Sorry I can’t join you for it. Maybe we can have a Boston meetup as well soon.

  9. …I like that you cut off comments on the other thread at exactly 666. :P

  10. Ooo, I will try to find you! I will bring knitting!

  11. I’m nowhere near Boston, but I have done a one-man smile campaign for years. It started when I was working as a juggler in crowds at outdoor festivals. I did contact juggling and other forms of manipulation (knots, string figures, coin rolling) so that I could look around all the time. Of course, a stony-faced entertainer is not much appreciated, so I smiled – just enough to be pleasant, making random brief eye-contact with men, women and children, stopping briefly for them if they were particularly interested in what I was doing.

    If it’s not manic, inquiring, or leering, a simple smile is usually returned, especially by young women. At first I was amazed at this, and then realized that it’s a social thing, and at least partially automatic. One smiles at friends, so anyone smiling at you must be a friend, and you reflexively smile back. If you offer a friendly but neutral smile, with casual eye contact and no obvious intent other than an expression saying “it’s a lovely day and I feel good,” and you have a relaxed and open posture, it’s hard not to smile back.

    I was 55+ when I started, and at first it was my “business” face. Then, after my face stopped hurting and got used to it, a smile became my normal walk-around face. So long as it was reasonably clear that I was not hitting on anybody (I’m an equal-opportunity guy, so I smile at guys too) I didn’t freak anybody out. And people smiled back at me!

    You don’t have to make like a clown or Goofy McDinglepuss. A little crinkle around the mouth, a sparkle in the eyes, maybe a very tiny nod. That’s all it takes.

    It’s catching, At first people don’t know quite what to do with a smiling stranger, and they will smile back and then their face will flip to some non-smiling expression, and then go back to a smile when they realize there’s no reason *not* to smile. Some will feel their face go through this bit of acrobatics and settle for a semi-embarrassed, bemused smile. But it’s still a smile. By the time we’ve passed each other, it’s stuck there, and they walk on, continuing to smile.

    It doesn’t work for everyone, and often not for most people. But there’s always someone who gets infected and continues to smile. At least just a little.

    In a small town or a neighborhood where you’re around often enough to be recognized, people eventually start to smile when they see you coming, knowing that you’ll be smiling too. The smile becomes your signature. Some who don’t ever smile back may begin to give you a brief nod as they pass. But you know you’ve changed their day.

    And sometimes two people who’ve caught your smile will meet each other and find themselves smiling at each other, and then bust out in a real big grin.

    It’s catching.

    You get the idea. Pass it on.

  12. I think if you offer a genuine smile to someone they are very likely to return it. I was walking down the street in NYC this past Saturday and a random funny/goofy thought popped into my head and made me smile. I continued to grin as I walked down the street. I made eye contact with a young woman walking the opposite way and she smiled back as we crossed paths. It was sincere and innocent but memorable and uplifting in its own small way. If it is a forced or organized smilefest I think that is where the creepiness factor comes in.

  13. It is a sad commentary on the state of AwkwardTown that the event described above started as a sarcastic, snarky, and angry commentary on the creepiness of smiling at strangers, rather than a real and honest effort to increase the amount of positive energy in the world – especially in Boston, where such positive energy may in fact be desperately needed. I hope it becomes a genuine thing. Bringing the community together is good for all of us, and this is part of how you bring the community together – interacting with strangers, being nice to people, being open and approachable. If I were closer to Boston, I would totally come.

    • Just to be clear, I intend this as a loving, welcoming kind of thing, and not a creepy social experiment. I want to increase positive feelings in public spaces, and I also want to increase my own comfort in public spaces, since I have been feeling discomfort recently. Connecting with people helps, and so that is what I want to do.

      It’s why I bring spinning instead of knitting, since people always ask about my spinning and almost never asked about my knitting.

      • I’m really glad you said that. I wasn’t sure, given the above comments, and Boston needs gentle happy handling right now, as you know.

        (I also think that acting weird in any way that might be perceived as edgy or negative on public transport there right now could possibly draw law enforcement attention in a way that it wouldn’t normally, but between the friendly smiling and the spinning, the vibe sounds extra mellow.)

        Have a great time and I hope that you experience lots of success in increasing everyone’s joy, comfort, and connectedness. That is great work to be doing.

    • I don’t think it’s a sad commentary. This is a both/and kind of deal. It can be true that increasing the amount of public friendliness in the world is a good thing, while it simultaneously being true that expecting and demanding that random women SMILE is rude, sexist, and presumptuous. Both the friendly event and the sarcastic event could have value, and CarbonatedWit decided that the friendly one was the one that she really wanted to do.

      I think it’s a sign that this is a rich and diverse community, and that the people who are part of it are capable of nuanced thought about complex topics. I see that as a good thing.

      • I think that’s a really cool interpretation, Jake. I’m a both/and kinda person (Libra, naturally) and that’s exactly how I saw this too.

        I’d also love to read a guest post of how it went. I’m a million times too shy to participate, but it seems like it could go really well and be sort of like a public art project.

        • “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.” — one of my favorite quotes from Walt Whitman’s “A Song of Myself.”

          I’m a big both/and thinker, myself. Sometimes that causes trouble on its own (hi, anxiety) but most of the time it’s kind of awesome.

      • I read it as having two aspects too. Right now, in Boston, the healing aspect is good and necessary. As another event, preferably one with insightful little leaflets, it could be good and necessary to make people aware of how their actions impact others, and how it’s really not-nice to want someone to look how you want them to look.

  14. I love this idea. I really love it.

    I am among those who don’t like being approached by strangers… but I do like smiles. While smiles can be creepy, most of the time they are free, non-invasive, and do not request or require any response. A smile is a smile is a smile. And an open, genuine smile from a stranger can bring a little bit of sunshine into my life.

    I’m nowhere near Boston, but I love this.

  15. I got slammed by some people in the last thread for saying that I do just this (told me it was street harassment). (Though they might have assumed I actually glomp people) But I am a walker so I only eye-contact-smile-wave at people I pass who make eye contact or smile or wave at me first.

    I think this is a fun idea. But I just assumed most people and places were like this already. I have been to all kinds of big cities (London, Leeds, Atlanta, NY, Manchester, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, York, etc etc.) and a lot of people do make eye contact and wave or smile at me and I don’t find it creepy at all. I mean, you’re walking, you’re sharing a sidewalk. In England I got street harassed far more often than anywhere else though – but those people just yelled things at me there was no eye contact involved. I was told by my ex (who was English) that people were not friendly in England and everyone was rude, but he was also a big abuser who didn’t want me to leave the house or have friends so I felt like that was why. :p

    Actually I met a lot of cool people this way. Like I wave to someone as I pass them and later we see each other on the bus and we start a conversation about the city we’re in and our mutual travels. I am jealous I won’t be in Boston to partake in this.

    • People in London (England) are not all bad, I smile at people all the time and I live there :)

    • If I am out for a walk, I almost always smile at the people walking the other way, and often will say Hi as well if its just me and just them (rather than in a crowded location). But then, if I dont, they often beat me to it. Perhaps its a community thing though.
      Then again, I’m in to hiking, and its normal here that if you pass a party going the other way, you stop and chat about track conditions, where each is headed, when they are due out etc.

  16. I was raised in a medium sized city that had the feel of a busy urban center – as in, when you are out and about, you don’t acknowledge the people around you (as in speak actual words to them if you don’t know them). That’s just crossing a line. I’ve heard from some urban dwellers that that sense of anonymity is essential to protecting their emotional health/sense of self in such a crowded and chaotic environment. Obviously not everyone necessarily feels that way, but it rings true for me.

    Now I live in an area where everyone knows each other, even though there’s a large population, and everyone is so freakin’ friendly. A friend from here went to NYC last month and commented on how no one would talk to her. I told her #1 we’re told from childhood “don’t talk to strangers” but #2 that’s because in big spaces, the person who talks to you is someone who is demonstrating willingness to cross that major boundary – so of course most people’s reactions are to not acknowledge, not respond.

    ANYWAY. I told her when I am out in public, I never open up a conversation with a stranger and if someone tries to open one up with me, I respond with “mm hmms” at most, if anything. HOWEVER – I do smile at almost everyone. I smile in their direction and only make direct eye contact if they do, but I still smile. It’s my way of saying “Hi there. No idea who you are, but I’m wishing awesomeness for you. That’s all, cya!” Especially for, say, parents struggling with children, people in service positions, and so forth. People who normally get glares and disapproval. My only exception is with dudes who seem to be paying undue attention to me – afraid of feeding someone who can’t distinguish a friendly/greeting smile from a sign of universal consent.

    So I like this a lot. It’s not often that I go outside without that smile on. (If I’m outside and not smiling, something is seriously wrong so anyone who tells me to smile is going to feel some wrath shortly.) And it’s a way to add some brightness without crossing that protective boundary.

  17. While reading these comments, I was trying to figure out why strangers smiling at me does honestly creep me out somewhat. I’ve come to at least a few conclusions:

    1) I have lived in the Chicagoland area for most of my life. When I was younger and had some social anxiety/paranoia issues, I especially enjoyed going to the Loop/River North area because I knew I would have a greater sense of anonymity.

    2) I’m more accustomed to ingenuity than not, in a few senses of the word. Regarding smiles, I tend to see:

    a) a forced smile

    b) a big smile from someone who wants money from me
    (I don’t want to name this particular organization, but it honestly used to upset me a bit how these people approach you like they’re so friendly (in one case in particular, someone waved at me like he knew me and I was actually trying to figure out who he was) and then they eventually bring up the fact they want money from you.)

    c) a “genuine” smile from some guy who then approaches me

    d) fake smiles and hugs from folks at church or extended family members

  18. No praise, no pressure. Hope you can take care of yourself however you need.

  19. This sounds like fun, wish I could see it!

    Captain, your blog has been fantastic for my overall well-being and ability to express boundaries. If you decided to retire today, you’ve still been wonderful and helpful and accomplished a lot of good in the world. I hope you’re taking care of yourself.

  20. Have a great time, wish I was in Boston. I’m also going to leave this “no shit Sherlock” comment just in case (we all have doh moments): No one going on this outing should carry a backpack.

  21. Haha. Maybe it’s because I live on the South Side of Chicago, but when strangers smile at me in public, it usually precedes some kind of ask for money or an attack (well maybe half the time). I’m glad that I’m not in Boston, but to those of you who are, have fun.

  22. Me too! On shitty days I sometimes try to poach the happy from strangers’ random smiles by way of mirror neurons. And it feels sort of creepily nonconsensual but I reason that if someone else needed to borrow some happy from me I would say god bless em.

  23. Well… if anyone showed up, I totally missed them.

    I had a pretty good time, though. I had a nice chat with a T operator, I taught a few people about spinning, and I saw one lady in an absolutely fabulous period outfit. I did get into Park following the algorithm, but then I stopped feeling well so I retreated into a corner with my kindle.

    I am a fat white lady. I wore a yellow/grey floral dress and had my hair up, making me look as nonthreatening as I can. I was in a good mood and felt genuinely happy to make connections, so I know my smile wasn’t forced.

    My observations:

    - Everyone in Boston is really good at avoiding eye contact! Really, really good at it.

    - People of color in general, and black people in particular, were more likely to make eye contact and smile back. However, the middle age Chinese (I think) couple was discomfited and avoided me.

    - White women were more likely to notice that I was offering eye contact and give the socially-awkward smile.

    - Some people were open to conversation but did not take a smile and eye contact as an invitation; they would look away, but then I would catch them looking back at me, watching the spinning, with open and curious body language. If I then gave them the smile and said “Hi!” most of them at least exchanged a polite chat.

    - The incidence of headphones and reading material (mostly kindles and smartphones) was much higher than I recall from when I took the T more often, years ago. A few times on the return trip the train got stopped and was idling, and the car was extremely quiet although at least 30 people were in it with me.

    - Many, many people have never seen anyone spinning yarn before, and it is like pure gossamer magic or something.

    I think that an abundance of smiles and eye contact probably works better on the street or in a park than on the T, where people have a well-defined ritual of movement that regards other humans as obstacles.

    Whenever I do anything like this I always kind of want a friend to follow me behind, pretending not to know me, so they can see how people react when I’m not looking at them. I always kind of want to know if they’re like “Oh what a nice lady” or “wow she was weird” or what.

    Anyway, a pleasant evening, although I was sad nobody met me!

    • Thanks for reporting back in. The observations are interesting. I’ll be curious to hear if anyone tried to meet up with you but missed.

    • i wanted to try to meet you, but the logistics didn’t work out. i do think that a boston-area meetup held at a stationary location would be awesome.

    • Aw, now I feel bad. I had been planning on going, but I was so wiped out by Friday evening that I ended up staying home watching Fashion Star instead. If I’d known no one else was coming I’d have tried harder to pull myself together.

      I have (finally) emailed the Captain about a sitting-around sort of meetup, so if you can come to that, I will very definitely be there! (The finally is because I have been intending to do this, like, practically all year. But it has been a bit of a bad year for me for getting stuff done.)

    • I wanted to come smile with you! and I was going to bring my little dog as my stranger-icebreaker. But I am 1,000 miles out of town this weekend for a family thing (and feeling uneasy with the very different rural social norms here! Casual stranger-chats seem to Just. Never. End… they just trail off into awkward sputtering inanities forever, and then I get to replay the conversation in my head and wonder if I made some awful Yankee faux pas. Plus there are literally NO public spaces here except commercial spaces. There are no parks or sidewalks, which I just cannot even.)

  24. [...] a couple people have expressed regret at missing and/or shyness at participating in the T meetup (including myself), I’d like to try and host a more stationary, Awkwardeers-only meetup for [...]

  25. For once, I wished I lived in the frozen north… I’d so like to meet the other folks who hang out here. I feel like I’ve learned so much from all of you. I come from a rather ‘huggy’ family so you’d probably run me off with a stick. I’m in the Deep South, so smiling is the norm. I smile at random people all the time, and others do the same… grocery store, post office, in traffic while someone lets you in their lane. When I go for walks on the beach, the other walkers are so excited to see someone who’s not running or biking, they damn near break an arm waving and smiling. (To be fair, the joggers & runners often give little waves, too.) I visited NC once with a friend, and we stopped by the side of the road to take some pics of a waterfall. Car after car came down the road, slowed down, and an arm was extended out the window in a friendly, smiling wave. I asked my friend – a former NC resident – “Do you KNOW those people?!?” She replied “No, they’re just friendly here.” I think much of smiling/eye contact is wrapped up in cultural expectations of behavior.

  26. http://www.shakesville.com/2012/09/beloved-community.html

    I saw this excellent speech transcript and thought of you and the recent messiness. Your blog is also a beloved community with growing pains. You have the right to draw boundaries on your safe space! Keep up the good work.

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