Smiles and Clipboards

A few weeks ago, I read A.S. King’s excellent novel Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  As is so often the case with a good book, I found myself thinking about it long after I’d finished.  In this case, it wasn’t the main plot, but a relatively minor element that kept bouncing back at me.

Smile or Not?

Smile or Not?

Aside: I’m not going to talk about the main plot, because it’s so complex, sophisticated, and intertwined that I refuse to cheapen it by attempting to summarize it.  I will say this: Don’t read the reviews.  They focus on the wrong things.  Just read the book.  It isn’t that long.

Okay.  Back to Glory…  One day when visiting the local mall (for reasons having to do with her recently acquired ability to see the future), eighteen-year-old Glory has a chance meeting with a fellow a couple of years older than herself.  He’s at the mall doing an experiment for his psychology class.  The experiment is pretty simple.  He’s smiling at people, then noting their response, most importantly, whether or not they smile back.  His conclusion is that most people don’t smile back or, if they do, their smiles are insincere ones that never touch their eyes.

I found myself thinking about this because, honestly, this doesn’t match my experience at all.  When I smile at people, they tend to smile back.  So now I’m wondering why the great difference in responses.

Is it a male/female thing?  Is it an age thing?  What I mean is, is a middle-aged woman less threatening than a handsome young man?

Is it a regional thing?  In my travels, I’ve certainly found New Mexico in general to be a pretty friendly state.  I frequently get into conversations with perfect strangers while on line at the store or bank or whatever.  I recall that when my sister (who lives in suburban Maryland) visited about six years ago, she commented on the general friendliness. This extends to stressful times as well.  In the week before Christmas, I had happy chats with people on the long line at the post office.  In one over-crowded store, apologies and laughter were the soundtrack as customers dodged around each other.

So maybe it’s where I live.

Then I found myself wondering if Glory’s young friend wasn’t missing an important element in his experiment: his clipboard.

Clipboards immediately signal “officialdom.”  More than one detective novel or spy thriller has employed the trope of the investigator grabbing a clipboard and marching around asking people questions under the guise of being from some organization or other.

If a handsome young man smiled at me in a mall, I’d figure he was just in a good mood (or maybe smiling at some pretty young thing out of my line of sight).  If he was holding a clipboard, I’d expect him to follow-up by coming over and asking me to sign a petition for something or other.


So, what do you think?  How do people where you live (and we have readers all over the world) respond to a smile from a stranger?  What elements might influence your response?  Would gender?  Age?  And, what about the clipboard?

Happy Christmas Eve…  May you meet many smiles wherever you may be.

4 Responses to “Smiles and Clipboards”

  1. Paul Says:

    I live in a small Virginia town. Lots of smiles there.

  2. Peter Says:

    There’s definitely a cultural component at work here – I get the impression it would be rude in China, where I live now (I’m far from an expert on Chinese social mores); in Saudi Arabia that kind of behaviour could get you arrested, depending on the genders of the people involved; when I lived in London, I doubt anyone would even notice, since I found Londoners avoid looking at other people’s faces; in Venezuela I’d consider it rude if somebody *didn’t* smile if they caught my glance in a crowd.

    For me personally, the clipboard would have the biggest impact on my perception, since I associate “smiling stranger with clipboard” with “somebody trying to sell me something or get me to take a product survey.”

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    I think it depends….Am I in a hurry? Am I stressed or distracted? Are my mental and physical health issues acting up? Although, if I’m in a mall, I’m almost certainly feeling stressed and am very task-oriented trying to prevent myself from having an anxiety attack. I suspect that I’m more likely to smile at a woman than a man. I’m more likely to just give a friendly nod than a smile in general. Clipboards are a turn-off. I’d recommend trying the experiment with small hand-held tally counters, one in each hand for smile or no smile.

    Also, I still have clipboard envy for Jane’s beautiful wooden clipboard.

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