Smiling in Berkeley, Paris and Shanghai

Phyllis Diller once said, « A smile is a curve that sets everything straight. » I think one of the reasons I feel so comfortable here in Berkeley is because people, particularly in my neighborhood, smile in the street. Whether they’re jogging, walking their dog on a leash or their baby in a stroller, or just going from one place to another, they invariably make eye contact with me, grin and say hello. And I do the same. What a difference a smile makes! There’s a human connection.  It’s good for my moral. It brightens my day.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the same when I walk down a street in my neighborhood in Paris. In France, smiling at strangers in the streets isn’t usually done, so most Parisians go around town with a neutral expression on their faces. They avoid your gaze and continue down the street without acknowledging you. Over the years, I, too, have acquired that neutral expression, that mask of non-recognition of the other when I’m living there. And it’s hard for me because I’m basically a friendly person with a broad, toothy smile that rarely leaves my face, even when I’m crying inside. But, as I tell American expatriates with whom I do cross-cultural training, you have to be careful in Paris. Parisians don’t smile at you because you’re a foreigner; they don’t smile at strangers; they don’t smile at each other.

It’s not only because Paris is a big metropolis and therefore, like New York or London, not so “friendly” as smaller places.  It’s also because not smiling is, in my opinion, part of French culture.  For many Americans, smiling is a polite gesture. Not so for the French. For many French people, smiling at a stranger in the street is a type of “come on” with sexual innuendos. Or it’s an invasion of privacy, since if you’re smiled at, you have to respond. Or it’s ‘hypocritical’: Why wear a smile when you don’t want to? they ask.

Of course, not all French people are non-smilers; some do smile, although usually not in the street. There are also regional differences. In the south of France, for example, people tend to be more “Mediterranean”, more outgoing and friendly, and they smile more. I’ve also noticed that French people who’ve traveled abroad often come back impressed by the smiling friendliness of other cultures; they may then attempt to smile more or at least to be less cynical about those who smile or about the meaning of a smile.

Personally speaking, I have often found that, in addition to establishing human contact, smiling is also a very efficient means of communication.  When you don’t speak the language, for example, as I didn’t in Shanghai when I was living and working there last year, smiling replaced words.  Chinese shopkeepers, cashiers, concierges, and I often smiled at each other, used gestures, and made ourselves understood. And I think the fact that we could share smiles helped me make ready friends with the little girls in the Chinese orphanage where I volunteered. Even with non-smiling Parisians, smiling to French policemen and bureaucrats has helped me obtain directions, information and help.

Smiling can assure,  inspire, embrace, open doors, resolve, and spread. Smiling is infectious.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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