What does your Frozen Face say about you?

I was taking a truck load of items to Goodwill the other day.  Getting to the drop-off point for our local Goodwill is a bit of a maze that requires more than just good navigating.  It helps if you have been there before a few times or you are with someone else who has been there before.  You need to take a right off the freeway, two lefts through a shopping center with confusing 3-way stop sign setups, then a right turn up a steep driveway into an obscure parking area of the shopping center.  You then circle around to the backside of a major discount store and drive through a hotchpotch of abandoned rusty trailers, towers of Jenga-esque pallets, and precariously-stacked bales of cardboard.

The secret to reaching the drop-off point is to then follow the path of orange cones.  All of this navigating is required with no aid from any helpful signage such as Turn Here for Goodwill Drop-Offs or Keep Going or You Are Not Lost.   If you execute each turn just so through the labyrinthine path, you will find yourself in the waiting lane where people are ultimately filling the wheeled canvas bins with soon-to-shared treasure.

The adventure is usually enhanced by having to dodge someone careening through the orange cones in a forklift.  Judging by the happy and sometimes-crazed look on the face of the forklift driver, you can guess that this is a fun and new and important component to the job description of Goodwill Greeter.  Perhaps he has never driven a forklift before, and it is fun as hell to balance a crazy-heavy bale of clothing and load it into the back of a trailer.  At least it looks like a lot of fun to me.  My Bucket List: drive a forklift through traffic.

There are two lanes that snake toward the drop-off point.  The lanes are clearly marked, yet I have never seen two vehicles approaching in parallel fashion.  The standard protocol is to get in line, inch forward as each vehicle completes its drop, and then wait until you can inch a bit farther.

It is interesting to watch what comes out of the vehicles ahead of you as you wait in line.  Some people get out of their vehicle, rummage in their trunk, and produce a neat Rubbermaid tub of goodies.  Other people have simply tossed their no-longer-wanted items all willy-nilly into their vehicles.  They hop out and start pulling ski poles and lampshades and toys and old computers and sweaters out . . . the friendly greeter taking it all in stride as he or she fills the canvas totes.

As you wait in line, you assess each vehicle that is waiting ahead of you, assuming the amount of content to be proportional to the vehicle size.   But there are surprises.  About the time you pull in behind a van and simply know that you are going to see the haphazard piles spewing forth, the driver gets out and hands over two boxes of books and then gets back into the van.

But some cars have all the appearance of those crazy clown cars.  It is as if the more stuff that the driver pulls out, the more that is being filled through the doors on the opposite side.  I have waited in line and marveled that so much crazy stuff could be pulled out of a Toyota Yaris.

I would not call this experience to be exactly entertaining.  Still, it is somewhat interesting to watch people divest themselves of those things they no longer deem valuable.

I was in line the other day.  The line was moving at a pretty good rate of speed, and I was doing what I normally do while waiting in the string of vehicles.  I was making up stories about the drivers, the cars, and the items that were spewing forth into future Goodwill sales.  I was next-up in the queue, and I pulled too far ahead in the line . . . past the invisible, unmarked-stop-sign line in the maze.  I knew the second that I had pulled too close and thought, “Oh-oh.  I have violated orange-cone protocol.”

I don’t know exactly why, but I expected a stern-looking response from the greeter . . . a look that said, “Look, lady.  Don’t be in such a hurry.”   But I received the exact opposite reaction.  The greeter put up his hand in the international stop-sign gesture and smiled as he did so.

I don’t really have the words to describe how this felt.  It was like this huge double-back-flip surprise of delight that just flooded through me.  I knew I had violated the Goodwill-waiting-in-line politesse and was expecting a righteous grumpy look from the young man and, instead, received such a sweet smile of Please, wait.  We are almost done here.  I felt this jolt of Wow!  So much for assumptions!

I remembered scheduling a class for my students on professionalism that addressed what the Professionalism Speaker called “Our Frozen Face.”  In other words, if we were to look in a mirror when we are not really thinking about anything or when we are concentrating at work or when we are befuddled, what would it look like?  The speaker said that for many, our default look is either a neutral, blank look or, even worse, a decided frown as a result of concentration or frustration.  We furrow our brows or we turn the corners of our mouth down.  Rarely do we smile like a Lottery Winner when we are at work.

But this person’s Frozen Face was dialed into smiles and happiness and benevolence.  When I got out of my truck to deliver the goods, I said to the young man, “Thank you for being so nice.  You have a very nice smile.”  When everything was out of the truck, I said, “Thanks for having such an awesome attitude.”  This young man had no idea why I was expressing such thanks to him, but he smiled again in response and told me to have a great day.

be-positive-and-always-smile-1I suspect that this young man had not attended anybody’s Professionalism classes.  He just looked happy on the inside.  Since that day at Goodwill, I have made note of when I am in line at the grocery store or I am on the phone with someone who is holding the fate of my future health insurance in her hands or when I am daydreaming in a coffee shop.  I wonder what my default is and am consciously smiling more when in these sorts of Frozen States.  It feels as if it is making a difference.  People are smiling back at me, and I am finding that people are going above and beyond to help me.  I am hearing more laughter and more stories in my daily transactions.  There is more sharing in the midst of the various exchanges.

All because someone who was working outside on a loading dock on a below-freezing winter day had the grace and the patience to go with his own flow and be happy in the moment.  And to extend it to me.

Sometimes I think am being too hard on myself, and it is possible that I was smiling when I realized my blunder.  I don’t know.  But it is my hope that my awareness to smile more and to be more gracious in the face of a blunder has been inspired and activated to a new level.  When there are so many blessings in life that abound, it is good to remind myself to be happy, smile, and appreciate the abundance.

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Smiling: a Super Power

black and white tree branchesDuring these gray, dark days of winter, I find myself turning inward.  I spend more time in reflection, in meditation, in exercise, in self-care, in research, in cooking and cleaning.  As I focus inward, I sense that I am not smiling as often as I normally do.  I thoroughly enjoy this indoor time of engaging with family and friends on a more intimate level; still, as my thoughts travel further and farther inward, so does my smile.

We are really lucky we can smile.  We are actually born smiling.  Scientists once thought that babies “learned” to smile by mirroring others, but they now agree that babies are smiling while in the womb.  The babies then, after their trip down the birth canal, do not normally smile until they are approximately six weeks old.  It is speculated that this is because babies have to get used to a completely new and strange environment . . . a stark contrast to the the baby’s stress-free environment in the womb.

“Did you know your smile can be a predictor of how long you’ll live – and that a simple smile has a measurable effect on your overall well-being?” I was re-watching Ron Gutman’s TED talk “The Hidden Power of Smiling.”  It is a great talk that reminds us of how important it is to our own health and to the well-being of others.  Gutman’s talk tells how the world can be changed by simply smiling.  Research and common sense and personal experience substantiate this.

Keep-smiling-keep-smiling-8001329-386-480I thought about this research today as I was out and about running errands.  I made it a point to smile at everyone who was stopped next to me in traffic.  Even at a few people who were walking on the sidewalk and crossing the street.  Some people’s expressions led me to believe that they thought that I was a creeper, but this was not the case with everyone.  Some people smiled back.  Some people waved.  One car let me go ahead of him in traffic.

Near the end of the afternoon, I found myself in the insane maze of Trader Joe’s parking lot.  Insanity rules in this particular location as the number of shoppers far outweighs the number of places to park.  People troll from lane to lane with grim expressions of determination on their faces.

I went into the maze with a philisophical state of mind.  Determined to carry out my mission of smiling at strangers today, I put myself into the ludicrous and absurd flow of cutthroat parkers.  People were cutting others off and zipping into parking spots ahead of them.  Sign language ensued.  A near fender bender was prevented by some pretty insane honking.  Everyone was wanting to get in and get out with their groceries.

I spied an empty spot, turned on my blinker, and then saw a car bearing down on me from the end of the lane.  Yikes!  This person must have really needed my spot because he zipped in ahead of me before I could even begin turning my wheel.

When he got out of his car, he smiled at me.  But it wasn’t a nice smile.  It was a smile of one-up-man-ship.  Gotcha! is what his smile said.   Now I am not a saint.  No, not by any long shot of the arrow.  And I could feel my brow furrowing and the corners of my mouth turning south.  But I paused.  And I thought.   And I remembered my research mission of the day.  As he came walking by my truck — which was hopelessly stalled behind two other cars that had been wanting that same parking spot — I smiled at him.  Really smiled at him.  He looked at me smiling at him, shook his head at me to confirm my insanity, put his head down, and kept walking.  I don’t know why, but this made me laugh out loud.

The moral of the story.  I ended up parking across the street from the fray of bumper cars, went into the store and ran the aisles, paid for my groceries, and rattled the cart across the way to my truck.  I was loading my bags into the back when a voice clear out of nowhere asked me, “Can I help you with your bags?”

It was a woman who had somehow materialized behind me.  I looked at her and thought, “Whoa!  Where did you come from?”  I almost declined her offer but then thought better of it.  She was smiling.  She helped me with my bags and then offered to return my cart for me.  Wow!  Like an angel, she rattled back to the store with the empty cart, still smiling.

I shut the tail gate and got into the truck and sat there while the truck warmed up.  I felt as if I had been visited by a significant act of kindness.

toaster ovenMy research mission for tomorrow?  Smile more. Even when I am here at home clattering away at the keyboard, I am going to smile more.  Research has shown that when you are feeling really blue, you can take a pencil and hold it horizontally in your mouth, across your bite, to simulate a smile.   This simple little act of holding your mouth in a make-believe smile — which is called facial feedback or priming — will indeed make you feel better. Good feelings are released.  It is like an instant therapy in moments of stress or sadness.

Below is a link to Ron Gutman’s TED talk.  Enjoy!  And it is my wish that your day is awesome and full of smiling.