“Remember that your smile alone can save a sad soul or heal a broken spirit.” -Unknown
My mom always smiled at strangers. (She usually talked to them too.) The example I was shown by mom was to always be kind. Long before we all had tees in our drawers to remind us to “be kind”, my mom was. She recognized the impact of seeing and acknowledging others and lived life doing just that.
As a tweenager, I was embarrassed by her openness with others. Her eagerness to strike up conversations with strangers was horrifying to witness as an insecure and easily embarrassed tween. It seemed weird and unnecessary.
One of her stranger encounters stands out in my mind. My brother and I went shopping with my mom. I was probably 11 or 12. We were waiting in line to check out. (There was always a line at the store when I was growing up.) Behind us was a man that was probably in his late twenties or early thirties. He was in a fitted black tee shirt, jeans, and boots. His arms were covered in tattoos, and his muscles bulged from under his tee. The man’s biceps were bigger than my head. He had a full beard and dark eyes. This man did not look like he was up for engaging conversation by his expression, yet, I knew his tough exterior would not be a deterrent for my mom. I was petrified that she was about to go in for the conversation. Please don’t. Please don’t.
Then my mom did it. She initiated a conversation with the Brawny man behind us! My 4-foot-10 mom looked up at the tall and stoic man with her biggest smile. She proceeded to acknowledge his muscular physique. She admired the sleeve of colorful tattoos on his arm. She asked him questions. My mom was not being flirtatious. She spoke to him the same way she talked to everyone with sincere interest and curiosity.
I will never forget the beautiful and bashful smile behind his gruff exterior. He was so receptive and also a bit surprised. I gathered that most people didn’t randomly strike up conversation with him. My mom put a crack in the armor he wore. A child-like giddiness emerged. I think that sixty-second interaction was something he needed. I witnessed the change in his misdemeanor instantly. It happened with a few kind words and a genuine smile.
As we walked to the car with our groceries, my brother and I made fun of my mom. There was no way we would miss the opportunity to taunt her. “Oh look at your arms. You have Popeye’s arms,” my brother said mockingly. I rolled my eyes. I did not need to add words.
My mom just told us to be quiet. She did not take the opportunity to chastise us for being disrespectful. (Though we clearly were.) Mom consistently showed us how to treat others. My mom was the most open, curious, accepting woman I knew. She approached everyone she met as an equal. She believed every human deserved to be treated with kindness. She knew the power of a smile too.
While we continued to tease and taunt mom for years about her unshakable need to engage in small talk with strangers, it seems the apples do not fall far from the tree. I seek opportunities to have conversations with people I am in line with. I talk to cashiers. I smile at everyone that passes Emily and me on our walks. I acknowledge people that I interact with daily.
In a world where we connect primarily through screens and devices, engaging in conversation and sharing a smile with strangers is beautiful. Also, are they really strangers? Perhaps, they are simply people we have yet to meet. A warm and genuine smile can change that.
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