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Is It Really So Hard To Smile At A Stranger?

Martha Greenburg |
March 6, 2013 | 6:16 p.m. PST



Babies smile at everyone, including people they don't know. Why can't we? (Bryan Allison, Creative Commons)
Babies smile at everyone, including people they don't know. Why can't we? (Bryan Allison, Creative Commons)
I love running. Besides the fact that it keeps me in shape and is a fun pastime, I love the feeling I get when I run past another runner and both of our sweaty faces look up and give the other a slight smile of encouragement. 

It’s similar to the feeling you get when you give a homeless man your spare change or a power bar. Or when you let the woman with fewer groceries cut in front of you in line. It’s these little acts of kindness that can totally turn someone’s day around. 

I’m a spring admit at USC and moving here from the Bay Area has been an adjustment. I’ve loved almost every single aspect of it, except for one thing. 

The people in LA seem to be afraid to smile at strangers. At home, I would greet at least 10 or 15 people on my daily runs, sometimes with a smile, other times by actually waving and saying “Good morning.” Here, I pass twice as many people each time and get nothing.

That's an exaggeration, but only slightly. I’ve been here roughly 60 days, which means I’ve probably gone on about 50 runs, I can remember and describe to you each person who has smiled or spoken to me and then literally count them on one hand. 

Sometimes while I run, I rack my brain for a reason for this behavior. Why do these people pretend to be so interested in what is on the sidewalk? Why do a majority of students conveniently get a text just moments before they are close enough to read the expression on my face?

The security measures recently implemented at USC are certainly no help in bringing the community together and encouraging students to reach out to the public. Thanks to the gates and strict policies, most students conceive of anyone outside the campus as a potential threat. Even if you aren’t threatened by the man who looks too old to be a student, sitting on the sidewalk by the metro, you certainly aren’t going to smile and ask him how his day is. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people inside the gates of USC think engaging with outsiders could be dangerous, while the people on the outside probably think those on the inside want little to do with them. Fencing out our neighbors is definitely not an invitation for them to smile at us as we jog by.

In an effort to send the opposite message, I attempt to smile at each person I pass as I run the perimeter of campus. So far, I’ve had two other students smile back, both female, and one crossing guard on the corner of Fig and Exposition say “Good morning! Happy Friday!” 

I will continue my experiment, in hopes of starting a trend. I realize it is unrealistic to think that by smiling at strangers the majority of Los Angeles will suddenly become an overwhelmingly friendly place where complete strangers become running buddies, but I’ve got to start somewhere.


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