Smiling Faces

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Years ago when I lived in L.A., an Iranian-born friend of mine introduced me to the local Persian market. After countless lunches and dinners at her home, as well as my marriage  into an Iraqi-American family, I had developed an affinity for Middle Eastern cuisine and wanted to try my hand at cooking it.

My friend had warned me that the shopping experience would not be what I was used to in American culture. She was right. The market was small and cramped, and women were bulldozing their way through narrow aisles with grim determination. The people who worked there were brusque. But what struck me more than anything was that no one smiled.

My husband explained to me that in Middle Eastern culture, people who smile all the time are considered fools. There are expressions in his language that basically translate into “grinning idiot.” Someone smiling in public for no reason is not to be trusted. This same cultural belief, I recently learned, is true in Russia. An Invisibilia podcast described the difficulty in opening Russia’s first McDonald’s and training Russian workers to smile. In Russian culture, one only smiles at one’s friends and family members, not strangers.

Here in America, smiling is ubiquitous. When I am out in public and make eye contact with a person, I usually smile, and they usually smile back. Friendly, smiling service personnel are the expectation here. And smiling can have many positive effects. One day during my teaching years, I stood outside my classroom door between class periods and noticed that every kid I saw was smiling. Even students I knew to be on the shy or surly side had a bright smile for me. Was something in my teeth? I wondered. Did I have a scrap of toilet paper dangling from the hem of my dress? As the bell rang, I realized that the students were all smiling for one reason: I was smiling at them.

Smiles can be contagious and make others feel welcome. The men and women who worked at the first Russian McDonald’s discovered that the Russian people started flocking to the restaurant, not so much for the food, but for the warmth and friendliness they found there. Studies have even shown that if you force yourself to smile, you will start feeling happier inside.

There can be downsides to all this smiling, of course. A perusal of one’s Facebook feed, for instance, can make a person feel as if the whole world is happy except for them. It can be challenging and exhausting at times to “put on a happy face.” And in the world of customer service, the expectation of smiling subservience can have a dark side. As explained in Invisibilia, in Russia, servers at restaurants were traditionally unfriendly and not particularly inclined to make customers happy. They had access to the food the customer wanted, and therefore they had the upper hand. The balance of power in American culture definitely lies with the customer, who in our tradition is “always right.” This can lead customers to be inconsiderate and even downright abusive at times with the expectation that the server is at their beck and call.

Smiling and friendliness can also conceal bad intentions. As the Temptations sang, “Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth.” I always think of glad-handing politicians when I hear that song. Lately the smiles of Paul Ryan and others on Capitol Hill have struck me as Cheshire-cat-like as they dismantle health care for the masses and hand out juicy tax breaks to the rich.

Yet I prefer to live in a culture where smiling is common. It can brighten someone’s day and make others around us just a little bit happier. Overall, I’d say that’s a good thing. As pop artist Sia sings, in America, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”

 

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It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.