Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. I’m from the south. The Nashville buckle of the Bible belt in all its glory. We smile. We say hi. We hold doors. However, I’m not always part of the collective “we.” Maybe it was my stint in New York, in a city that squints at an unsolicited smile like, “Hey man, whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.”
Or maybe it’s just me. I walk faster than the general pedestrian – longer steps at a greater rate formed from years trying to keep up with my father. I talk faster too. The drawl is there, but truncated – holding on long to some vowels and tossing others. I do smile. But it’s not the megawatt smile that’s as instinctual as a wave below a certain latitude.
My son though, he could be on the campaign trail. At five, he’ll smile at the garbage can if it looks lonely. Most kids his age are still feeling out their bubble… needing to be reminded that other kids don’t exist just to steal their bucket. Come on kids, let’s build that sand castle together and make John Lennon proud. My kid though, he’s a smiler, grinner, waver, and hand shaker. He’s never had to be reminded to share. He smiles with his whole face too, chin to hairline. It’s endearing in a way I’ll never be.
This, it turns out, is the most patriotic thing he could do. We Americans are smilers, at least according to The Atlantic. Despite the regional disparities, we are, as a country, friendlier than most. When seen from a foreign perspective, we’re the happy Americans, like a cartoon Goofy with an “aw shucks” chuckle. Not the most dignified analogy.
Historically speaking, though, we come by it honestly. We are a nation of immigrants, a conglomeration of multi-syllabic rolled “Rs” and “adieus.” We smile because it’s universal. You don’t have to speak the language to read the face. If aliens ever landed, the friendly kind, they’d open with a smile.
It is no surprise then, that my son, the child with cerebral palsy and limited language, has stumbled upon the best nonverbal form of “I come in peace.” It used to bother me, his friendliness – mostly because it drew me into the limelight as well. To carry him down the hallway was to participate in the endless parade of pageant waves that his mile-wide smile elicited.
There was never a direct path from point A to point B. We walked the chorus line and did the dance. But if The Atlantic is correct and the purpose of the smile is “to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language” and to signify that someone “wants to be a close friend of yours,” then my son is an advanced species, an evolutionary step past me. He has managed to master a language that his mother, in all her adult sensibilities, cannot.
When I am in doubt about my son’s future and how he might fare when I can no longer carry him down the hallway, I watch his face breaking like sun across water at each person we pass. And then, more importantly, I watch their faces – the passersby – it is the same, sun to sun. He spreads a message that we cannot help but carry on, like Olympians passing the baton – the grip, and grin, is reflexive. As it turns out, Louis Armstrong was a soothsayer. If you smile, the world really will smile with you.