Scoring Smiles

by Dave Hess - April, 2002

There is a game that my friend Steve and I started playing when we were biking around the world. We called it "scoring smiles". Sometimes we would see hundreds of people in a good day of biking. Most of these were people we just passed by. When we first started out there did not seem to be much chance for interesting interaction in these encounters, but hours in the saddle gave us time to work on it. The object of the game was to get people to smile at us. We were not going for those little, polite smiles. That just wasn't good enough. We wanted the big, whole face smiles.

After thousands of miles of practice, we developed some definite technique. The best way to get someone to smile at you is to smile at them, but first you have to make eye contact. If you are already smiling when you make eye contact, it is not clear that you are smiling at them. You might be goofy or smiling for some other reason when you just happened to looked in their direction.

Once you have eye contact, a very slight pause helps. It needs to be enough for the eye contact to set in, but not long enough to seem to be staring. Then you flash a big, genuine smile. It is amazing how well this can work.

For some people smiling back is a reflex. They have already done it before they even know what is going on. Other people realize that you are smiling at them, and then consciously decide to smile back. These are even better. Some of the best smiles actually take a few seconds to develop. For example, a person has a reflexive smile back, then realizes that you are really smiling at him or her. At this point the smile can change dramatically from a "polite smile" to a "whole face smile." These can be very rewarding.

One time I was taking an early morning walk in Prague. I met a middle aged woman on the sidewalk and gave her my best effort. I got the polite smile followed by the whole face smile, but it did not end there. It seemed to have taken over her whole body. She almost stumbled as we passed. She stopped and turned and said, "Wow, that was nice." Scoring a smile like that can make my whole week.

Sometimes Steve would spot someone that I hadn't noticed. This can especially happen when we are trying to find our way in a city. When I would here him say "Score!" I would know what I missed. Other times we would both be smiling at the same person, and the dispute over who had actually scored the smile could go on for miles and miles.

The success rate of scoring really good smiles depends on many things. Age and sex of the subject definitely come into play. Old women and children are usually really easy. Old men are a little tougher, but not too bad. Young women are sometimes suspicious. Women in big cities can be particularly challenging. Young men are the toughest of all. Many of them just don't know how to handle the situation.

Location also comes into play. Some places it is really easy to score smiles. Other places it can be tough and frankly a little depressing. In old East Germany, we sometimes went days without getting a really good smile. We tried over and over again, but often got nothing but a blank, gray face staring back at us.

Another place that was tough was South East Asia. The people there were just too fast for us. They were almost always already smiling at us before we got a chance. I'm not complaining, but it did make the game challenging.

The people on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula were fantastic. In Malaysia we went through one small fishing village after another. In each village everyone would smile at us, and the kids all ran to the edge of the road yelling "hello, hello". Imagine hearing that a thousand times a day from a thousand smiling kids.

We loved Malaysia, but when we crossed the boarder into Thailand, the situation changed. We still saw thousands of smiling faces, but in Thailand the kids all yelled "hello, I love you, hello, I love you". It was really hard to be in a bad mood in Thailand.

One of my favorite smiles actually came a couple years after the bike trip with Steve. I was riding to work in Madison, Wisconsin. It was raining hard that morning. While waiting at a stop light I noticed a woman in her car. She looked like her thoughts were somewhere else, maybe thinking about what she needed to do at work. Then she seemed to notice me. As her eyes met mine I flashed a big smile. Her face lit up like magic. She was not thinking about work anymore. She was just smiling at me, and I was smiling back. Then the light turned green, and we both went on our way. I really think it made her day, and I bet she told her coworkers about the rain soaked guy on a bike that smiled at her. That's what I believed then, and it really made my happy. I guess I still believe it now. You know what? It still makes me happy.