The Power of a Smile

By Carole Burns

I used to be amazed at the number of people my father knew; everyone from the clerk at the grocery story to the toll-booth worker on our way into (or leaving) Iowa seemed to be his friend. His friendly chatter and smile were infectious indeed, and were traits passed on to all seven of his children. As a result, I don’t believe that any of us would be considered shy by today’s standards.

I was reminded of my dad the first week that I started working at Marquette University. Assistant Dean Rose Richard and I were walking down Wisconsin Avenue and a homeless person passed us on the street. Rose looked into his eyes and said “good morning, how are you?”. This person smiled back and said “well the day is sunny, so I’m doing good.” As we walked on, Rose turned to me and said, “you know Carole, people just want to be acknowledged.” She was right, and so was my father. People need to be acknowledged; to be seen and spoken to by others.

My father passed away in 2000, and Dean Richard has moved on to making a difference in the lives of students from Messmer High School. But I think of both of them as I walk down Wisconsin Avenue. I’m sure that I am known as the crazy lady at Marquette because I will look at anyone whose gaze catches mine and say “hello.” Most of the time I get a smile and a nod, but other times my words fall on deaf ears. Not because the person doesn’t want to hear my words, but because they are wearing securely fastened ear buds. Although this allows each individual to walk around to the soundtrack of his or her choosing, this also restricts the sounds of the surrounding world.

How sad for these people, because they’re missing the chance to acknowledge others. Meeting the gaze of others with a smile is the thing that gives me energy to face the challenges of the day. The world is far too serious and I need to make sure I am able to laugh at small mistakes or missteps. Smiling and talking with strangers are ways to make sure that I don’t take my self too seriously.

Yes, I’m that person. The one who talks to strangers on elevators, making small talk and observations.

In the world there are arguments about politics, religion, cheating sports teams, people’s rights, salaries, etc. I know that when I was young and my father was driving us to Dubuque, these same problems existed. But perhaps we were more willing to be thoughtful of others because we took the opportunity to stop and talk. We knew our neighbors and store clerks, we understood their views, and they understood ours. We were willing to bend a little because it helped make someone else’s life a little bit easier. That was all because we took the time to communicate.

When I started at Marquette ten years ago and walked down the street with Rose, the world wasn’t an easier place to live, but yet, an element of patience and understanding existed. We were smiling and talkative as we returned to work. I may have been on a “I have a great new job” high, but for some reason the air felt lighter and the halls seemed brighter.

I miss those days, but I know that they don’t have to be gone from existence. I think that, for the time, they’re just hidden behind technology.

If you haven’t made a Lenten promise, perhaps it can be to put down the technology when you walk down the street, even just once a day. Instead of checking emails or tweeting, meet the eyes of a stranger and say ‘hello’—or ask how they are and really mean it. You may be surprised how much nicer the world will become and how much stress is reduced.

It won’t cost you anything to try, and the only side effect it will produce is freedom. Freedom to just be who you were when you were young. Naive, carefree and happy. Who knows, you may find a new friend or help someone’s day to be a bit better!

Interpersonal communication is contagious: pass it on!

Carole J. Burns is the Director of the Wakerly Technology Training Center at Marquette University. Follow her on Twitter @burnsy1217.

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