This weekend I am attending a legal conference with 10,000 intellectual property attorneys from nearly every country in the world. It is a great opportunity to reconnect with colleagues and to begin to form new relationships.
It can also be stressful and challenging to communicate with each other. There are barriers of language and culture, and jet lag doesn’t help. Many of us are here not only to learn but to generate new business, which can carry with it an added layer of pressure. Look at the thousands of attendees walking through the halls and waiting to meet with prospective new clients and business partners, and you will see faces tense with worry and preoccupation — and buried in smartphones, frantically texting or reading something obviously of great and urgent importance.
Somewhat by accident, I have been practicing smiling every time I make eye contact with someone.
The results have been pleasantly surprising and informative in ways I did not expect.
I did not set out to do this. It started when I casually but broadly smiled at the person who was standing next to me while we were both waiting to meet with other people. In response, he smiled back and struck up a friendly and relaxed conversation about the free takeaway conference-branded wristbands (surely soon to be fodder for landfills) that were sitting on the counter behind us. Despite the mundane (you might say absurd) nature of the topic, his tone and feeling were warm, relaxed, and comfortable. We chatted for a few minutes before each of us went off to our scheduled networking meetings, brows once again furrowed.
So began my experiment in smiling.
I have been trying (although “trying” is probably not the right word to capture my intent) to make my smiles relaxed, natural, and non-intrusive. At first I told myself that I would try to smile at everyone I saw (at least those who would look up long enough from their smartphones to make eye contact), but then I realized that smiling “at” someone else was not the state of mind I was after. Now I am just trying to smile “while” engaged in eye contact with someone else. It is a subtle difference that I think is making a difference in my attitude while smiling.
The most obvious and predictable response has been to for the other person to smile in response. The other common, and often surprising, responses have been:
- A double-take, accompanied by a look that says, “What do you think you’re doing?,” followed by an epiphany, followed by a smile, all within a second or two.
- A spontaneous utterance, seemingly coming from somewhere in the subconscious. I just passed a woman whose response was to smile, glance down at my name tag, and blurt out, “Plotkin!” with a smile before moving on. I wonder whether the fact that many attendees speak English as a second language is eliciting responses that are more directly emotional than linguistic.
- A continued grimace. This one is the most rare, but it has been useful for me to notice my own response to the other person’s lack of a positive response to my smile. I find myself thinking, “What a nerve! Who is this person not to smile back at me? I just gave them a free smile!” Then I question whether to smile again, given the risk of being spurned. It would be an interesting experiment and self-challenge to smile a thousand times at people who never smile back in an effort to practice smiling for its own sake and not with the intent of receiving a “reward smile” in return.
One practical piece of advice I have gleaned from this is an answer to what many people find the most challenging problem when networking and meeting new people generally: how to start a conversation with someone you have never met, know nothing about, and who comes from a different culture than you. In such situations we often search for the right question to ask, an interesting an unusual fact about ourselves to share, or a clever observation to make. Although all of those can be successful, they are hit or miss and are always accompanied by some degree of anticipatory stress. What I am finding is that very often there is a much simpler, universal, and emotionally direct way to initiate an authentic conversation regardless of the cultural divide between you and the person in front of you: