The Value of a Smile!

I emigrated from England to Canada in 1975, and one of the first things I noticed about Canadians was how “distant” they were. It was not an unfriendliness, but just a general indifference.

I came from a City with a population of around 70,000 and surrounded by agricultural land… to a City of well over 1M people which, if counting the urban sprawl and neighboring towns, included over 4M people.

I came from a City in which I had lived almost constantly for 20 years… and was now in a City which I knew very little about.

I came from a place where I had friends and acquaintances, and I knew some of the store owners and their staff… to a place where I knew nobody.

I was visiting downtown Toronto on a regular basis as I needed to get my business profile on as many work agency registers as possible, and was constantly amazed (and disappointed) at the total lack of a polite “Good morning”, or even any direct eye contact. Was this the culture of Canada? Was it perhaps just a “big city” trait?

I was having to adjust in so many ways, but one of the things which was really bothering me was that nobody initiated any social contact. After a couple of weeks of feeling rather isolated, I decided to do exactly what I was expecting others to do.Β  I decided that the next person that I met on the street, I would look directly at them and if there was even a hint of eye contact, I would give them a big smile and cheerful “Good morning!”

The response was a big smile! I then repeated that wherever feasible and was surprised at, not only how many smiles were returned, but also how many times I received a “Hi”! I even received an occasional “Hi! How are you?” (rhetorical question of course).

If there was no possibility of eye contact, then I refrained, but in other cases I simply offered a polite acknowledgement of their existence, and the “payback” was priceless.

When I describe Canadians now, I say that they are in general a very friendly culture however, you may have to make the first move. They may not offer you their hand, but if you offer yours, they will usually take it with warmth and enthusiasm.

I have always liked the concept of treating people the way you would like to be treated but, whereas I would have thought it to be an automatic and intuitive approach to life, my first few weeks in Canada proved quite the contrary. I had an expectation from Canadians that I was not demonstrating myself. As soon as that flaw was resolved, everything else just fell into place.

A simple smile. A simple acknowledgement that you exist. A simple greeting. Isn’t that what most of us would like? Perhaps more of us should take the first step, and then enjoy the reward of a sense of belonging in a community.

Food for thought.

47 thoughts on “The Value of a Smile!

  1. Crazy how many doors a little smile can open :-). I totally understand you. It’s hard when everything seems so different. I had a similar experience many years ago, when I moved from my little country town to the city. People were so focused on themselves. While in our town you said hello to everyone, maybe even had a little chat about the day or the weather, people in the city kept walking past, eyes glued on the pavement. I did what you did and started smiling at them and wishing them a good day. The interesting thing was that during winter, when the weather was grey and foggy there I hardly ever got anything back (still kept doing it) but then, as soon as the weather got nicer and warmer, people started to open up too… Ever since then I keep smiling at people and greeting them. Most of the time now, even living in another country, I get a friendly and happy response.

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    • But you are so wrong! Winters are crisp, mostly blue skies and with no mosquitoes. The landscape is beautiful after a fresh fall of snow and, if it is a significant snow fall, there is the mutual assistance for those less able to shovel! Hot chocolate outside as we survey the new snow piles! Ray’s walks can be any time of day. We have no lawns to cut and cannot see the weeds to pull them so no garden maintenance. It is a wonderful season! πŸ™‚

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    • If I recall correctly you are in Greece. A country with a crippling debt which it is having difficulty paying off without re-negotiating. A country that believes it can dictate the terms of its own financial salvation. A country where the residents avoid paying taxes whenever possible, and yet somehow expect Greece’s financial catastrophe to be resolved! Yassas vs Yassas? No wonder they are a confused nation! πŸ™‚


        • Greece has such a strong and inspirational heritage that it would be a sad day indeed if it was ever “absorbed” by EU. It is ironic that you, being a non-national (I assume), contribute to its recovery, when so many nationals are still fighting against contributing! I think they need a basic lesson in Government funded services and how they are paid for! πŸ™‚


  2. In Asia, in cities or big towns where most people don’t know each other you don’t expect that kind of courtesy, they also don’t expect it from you. The locals don’t expect it from one another if they were not acquainted prior. But it doesn’t mean there is unfriendliness or that they wont help if someone needed any kind of assistance.In fact they feel obliged to help a stranger or foreigner. In Japan, it is particularly very rude to make eye contact. So I guess, cultural difference?

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    • Hi Allu – Always nice to hear from you! Their comfort level within their culture is clearly very different from ours (mine), which simply means that we not only should expect different reactions to gestures, but also that we should learn about other cultures in order to understand and respect them. This is another reason why I love Canada (at least my part of Canada!). There are so many different cultures living here and, not only have they assimilated in general extremely well, but they have also maintained key aspects of their own culture. During the summer months, there are so many celebrations that are driven by a specific culture.

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      • I go for a walk or run in a jogging trail in the mountains. Sometimes I meet foreign joggers and they do greet: a nod, a smile, a hello. My initial reaction is surprise since I don’t expect it. I awkwardly return the greeting. When I meet local joggers, we just pass by each other without saying a word and it feels normal! My feeling is (and I don’t know if it is shared by others in my country since I never thought of this before so I never asked anyone why they don’t greet strangers) greeting strangers is just small talk since you’ve never met them before and probably will not again (and no one likes small talks!). In my context this may be logical and normal but in your context, it might be what is considered rude!

        Very different in my small provincial village though. We always say the traditional greeting if only not to appear snobbish!

        Yes, I heard Canada is multi ethnic. I can imagine fun!! πŸ™‚

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  3. Perhaps this is a needed post in many ways but folks that need to read this won’t see it. I’ve lived in the same county in Central Texas since birth. The same house since 1963 so I really can’t wade in with an opinion other than to compare it to race relations and that folks have to make the initiative to smile or hold open a door for the next person or yield to someone tying to get across a line of cars in order to make a turn to be on their way. Or to give a hand in the grocery store or where ever.

    I’ll add one more thing. Most people expect Texans to be very friendly but that is not necessarily true in many areas. Even in small towns folks can be distrustful and suspicious. It all depends on the individual who can make the difference.

    I’m not sure that what I just wrote makes sense. I’m sorry if there is a total disconnect and feel free to edit or delete this. I’m a bit frazzled today.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Originally from the northeastern US, I had culture shock moving to southeast USA in 1984. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming! I loved it and began to see my area of upbringing as cold and rude. Over the years, I believed I saw a shift in how friendly people were becoming “up North.” From reading your post, I am beginning to think maybe the shift was in ME. Thanks for the insight, Colin. ~Amy

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  5. oooh sounds like a nice place to be! I’m really considering studying at University of Toronto for my year abroad next year. It would be a massive change for me, coming from London but your post is reassuring that people there are actually really nice πŸ˜€

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  6. I live in the northeast US and my area is not particularly friendly. I lived in New Jersey for several years and most of the people in my town were business transplants so they were eager to find friends and it was very friendly. One of my friends in that town was from Quebec (complete with fluent French). She was the friendliest person around. We have been friends long after I left the area. For me it always takes a while to make friends. It’s easier for the residents to reach out to the newcomer but that doesn’t always happen.

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    • Interesting last sentence Kate. Given two complete strangers, one a newcomer and the other a resident, what makes you think that it is easier for the resident to initiate contact rather than the newcomer?

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      • Because they are comfortable and established. I was always taught to reach out to new people (especially kids at school) because the adjustments of a new location can be overwhelming. I can say from experience that when I moved to Delaware, my next door neighbor was a life saver. She introduced herself the first weekend and took the time to show me around. I would have been reluctant to impose on anyone. I greatly appreciated it and try to do that for others.

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