Germans don’t smile at strangers. Americans smile at everyone. You can be the only two people passing on a path, make eye contact for a full second, and a German will still move on without smiling a hello. Americans will make eye contact, nod, smile, say hello, and maybe throw out a last minute “how are you” before passing by.
At first I thought Germans were particularly unfriendly to outsiders. It irked me not to be acknowledged. Then I learned that there is a legitimate theory behind the difference in smiling culture. This is a great video that explains it:
In summary it says that basically the U.S. grew with so many cultures and languages mixing together that we came to use more non-verbal cues, like smiling, to build trust and prevent confrontations. In countries where almost everyone speaks the same language, like Germany, that just wasn’t necessary and smiling at strangers never became a habit. Don’t get me wrong… it’s not that they don’t smile. Germans are incredibly warm and welcoming once you’ve been properly introduced. They just don’t feel a need to adjust their faces for people they don’t know.
I wanted to see what it felt like to live as a German. I’m here for three months- I figured I should try to get the full experience. So for a week, I was determined not to smile at strangers. Here’s what happened…
For the first day or two, it was difficult. I felt rude and extremely uneasy, almost aggressive with my neutral face. It’s just a smile, I thought. Why am I so concerned about the people around me? Then realization struck- my strong reaction was because I was fighting to stifle a lifetime of training.
A smile is a complicated thing. Especially for a woman. Most women have mastered the artform of the half-smile. We smile just enough to convey “I see you, I acknowledge you, I am not a threat” balanced with not smiling enough to act as an invitation or encouragement.
Women smile at people or we are told to smile. As we encounter strangers on the street, on a path, or in a bar, we calculate whether that person is a potential threat and adjust our smile.* We do this in a split second, sometimes without even realizing it. If there’s no threat, of course we can smile for real- out of enjoyment or of simply sharing a moment passing by. As a woman walking through this world, or any person routinely targeted, this is just normal. It’s second nature.
After a few days of not smiling, though, I had a mental switch. It was like a veil dropped. It was liberating! I love not smiling. I hadn’t realized how much I felt like I owed a pleasant experience to complete strangers. In the US, there is no neutral for women- lack of a smile is called a “bitchy resting face.” Not exactly an endearing term. There, I don’t get to decide if I am in the mood to be nice. It is just a constant low-level state of reaction. Exhausting. Here, I can claim my space, my face, and not care what other people think. I don’t worry if they think I’m rude or hostile because not smiling is normal. For as much as I do love sharing a smile when I’m happy, I love even more not smiling when I don’t want to.
I want to take this feeling, this new found power, home with me. I want to move through my life on my own terms. How much energy do we spend protecting ourselves? How much do we change what we present to the world for fear of offending, or disappointing, or seeming too aggressive? For me, I know my answer is “too much.” In my art, I hold back on showing the darker pieces for fear that I will scare people off. No one wants to see that, I tell myself. I am supposed to present art that is beautiful and that will make people feel good. But I am certainly not always cheerful and neither is my art. My hope is that after this trip I can begin to let go of being responsible for others’ comfort. I can simply be me, with a warm smile to greet you or not. With paintings of bright “happy trees,” or not. As long as it’s genuine, I think I’m doing alright.
*On a side note: Assessing the people around us helps us mentally prepare for what may happen. It gives us a few extra moments to run scenarios in our heads, to search for a way out. Just because we can identify a potential threat does NOT imply that we can prevent someone from verbally or physically harassing or attacking us. If a person is intent on treating another human being as a receptacle, it is not the victim’s fault. There is no level of smile, code of dress, or walking gait that will change that. It will change when society holds the offender responsible and shames them for the reprehensible behavior.