The Smile Game

by Dan Walsh

Smile at a stranger. Change the world.

I’ve been playing a little game with the world lately. I wish I had a better name for it, but for now I’ll call it the smile game. The objective is simple: get a stranger to smile. It sounds easy, but it took some work before I could really have fun with the game. It was uncomfortable at first, creepy second, and then finally became fun after enough practice.

The smile game is an evolution of a ideas I picked up from various books. Orsen Swett Marden recommends becoming “Mr. Friendly” in Cheerfulness as a Life Power. The Buddha Walks into a Bar, by Lodro Rinzler convinced me that I should radiate compassion. Brené Brown convinced me of the impact my subtle reactions can have on those around me in Daring Greatly. It wasn’t easy putting these ideas into practice, there were a lot of mistakes and false starts. I kept at it though, and they eventually became second nature. I realized last week that all of these little kindness habits coalesced into a game. Each habit, when successfully performed, tended to result in a smile from someone else. This was surprisingly rewarding and I found myself trying to get everyone to smile because it just felt good. It became my secret game. No one knew I was playing. They didn’t know they were playing with me. Best of all I could play it whenever, wherever, and with whoever.

As is usually the case, the hardest part was the first step. I can’t play the game by myself, so I had to get comfortable with initiating a social exchange for no reason. It’s easy to be nice and smile to a barista because there is a reason to interact with them. It’s much harder to be open and friendly with a stranger for no reason. The lines of social etiquette are blurry here. I eventually developed a second sense for when and how it’s ok to initialize interaction, but that knowledge is so subtly I don’t think I can articulate it. It’s more like a feeling that can only be learned by trial and embarrassing error, unfortunately. There are at least 10 men at my gym who now think that I’ve made a pass at them in the locker room. C’est la vie.

The second hardest part of learning the smile game was getting the timing right. I quickly realized that waiting for eye contact and then offering a broad smile is the surest way to look like a creepy serial killer. I think it made people feel like I ambushed them. It is much better to already be wearing a warm smile before eye contact is made. It’s really hard to see someone smiling and not smile back.

It’s important to reiterate that expressing emotion to a stranger is initially really uncomfortable. Even though it is something as innocent as a smile, it’s a mild form vulnerability. If the other person doesn’t return the smile, it can be a little painful. To be sure, getting a smile out of a loved one, a coworker, or a barista also counts in the smile game. But in some ways these are easier to point to earn. Letting the people I care about know that I love them is already part of my daily life.

The smile game is really about getting people to smile for no reason. That’s when it’s fun. It’s about knowing that I made a difference in someone’s day, even if it’s minor. That’s why it’s good. It’s about trying to get as many people to smile in as many ways as possible. That’s why it’s fun. And it’s about hoping that these good emotions will pass from me to everyone I encounter, and from them to everyone they encounter. That’s how I think it will change the world.