is often a scowl at home” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)
It’s often said that when Life, or The Universe, has something to teach you, it keeps putting that lesson in front of you until you finally get it.
(Equally, you could argue that sometimes you miss
something the first zillion times, because you’re not programmed to notice
it. So you keep attracting it in the
first place because you don’t see it coming.)
Still, eventually, the sheer weight of repetition brings it to your attention. Even if it’s something you’ve automatically accepted since as far back as you can remember, at some point you finally cotton onto the idea that it’s time to revise your views.
My mother was a great one for lecturing me on the value of a smile; usually when I was feeling thoroughly miserable or peeved, as a small child. “People won’t like you if you don’t smile”, she’d say, baring her teeth in a smile that stopped at the corners of her lips.
As ever, in one sense she was right. Not least because the opposite is true: people tend to be better disposed to people who smile.
It’s a reflex thing. A smile can be very reassuring. It can be like waving a white flag, or like the sun coming out after a storm. Anyone who has ever experienced an abusive relationship becomes expert at watching the abuser’s face for the hint of the smile signifying that, for the time being, the explosion is over.
How often do we take a smile as meaning that things are more right, than wrong, with our world? that the person smiling is friendly, rather than hostile?
Over the past four weeks, I’ve had several intimations that I need to be less careless about the value I habitually ascribe to a smile.
Now this is not to say that I’m in favour of meeting smiles with suspicion. A smile, as the cliché goes, really can brighten your day.
Most people smile to convey a degree of genuine warmth and friendliness. Some don’t. This is why a smile should not automatically outweigh whatever accompanies it.
Frankly, for me a smile often has. Not that I was aware of it before. I’ve interpreted a smile in the same way as the wagging tail of a dog: friendly intentions. I’ve done so even when the words issuing from the person’s lips have been quite savage. Especially if they’ve laughed mid-sentence. The sting in the words must have been unintentional, if they were smiling and laughing.
Not so. There are some calculating people who deliberately use a smile to disarm. Why should we presume to understand a person’s intentions better than the person him (or her) self?
People may not always choose their words altogether consciously, but they do choose them accurately.
Much as they may make some effort to mislead as to their real intentions, they tend not to work too hard at it. They’re unlikely to conceal all the clues.
After a few experiences in the past month when a smile has been used to mask hostility, I’ve resolved to be… not less trusting so much as more aware.
I’ve started to assess what I experience in a more methodical way, by looking at the words, the smile and the left side of the person’s face, especially the left eye.
The overall view that you get of a face comes from the right, or public, side. The left side, when you start to look at it, may be quite different. The left eye may look colder than you might expect. Face Reading is Glenna Trout’s sphere of expertise, not mine. But you don’t need to be a face reader to see the expression of an eye; you only have to look.
Three criteria have to be better than one. Abuse comes in a vast range of gradations. Learning to pick up small scale, preliminary abuse can only help you to put more effective defences in place against all future abuse.