I am on a serious hunt. A hunt to find out what it takes to smile. During my growing up years I remember a wholesome exchange of smiles whether it was on my way to school, within the school premise, the neighbourhood and during the occasional visits to the nearby marketplace. Nowadays, smiley emojis are bestowed in abundance within a virtual, enclosed space, yet the physical presence of another human being is hardly acknowledged with a smile.
Lately, I have been intrigued by the range of emotions that our eyes communicate — succinct yet effective. Sometimes, our eyes speak louder and clearer than words. I am on the lookout for the Duchenne smile, the one in which a person uses the mouth and eyes to smile. Even while our mouths are shielded by the ubiquitous mask, that is now considered a regular facial feature, our eyes do reveal our true mental make-up and state of well-being.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I have peered deeper into people’s eyes to study the range of emotions that they might experience at a particular moment. I admit that this is a tricky exercise akin to treading on choppy water rippling with wild waves. It’s true that not everyone will regard my earnest study with healthy humour and zest. But there is no stopping me. Regardless of the consequences, I am obstinate in my brazen pursuit of what makes one smile.
So everywhere I go I keep a keen watch on people. I observe, glare, stare, gape, and gawk. The discrete study is done with a fair amount of discretion, but I must confess that I do, at times, fall short. My cheeky explorations have largely been delightful; though occasionally sharp scowls and cold, bone-chilling glares do come piercing back at me.
I feel the adrenalin feverishly flow through my excited veins. However, unlike a regular spy, I have no affiliation to any secret agency nor am I on any impossible mission to protect or unearth any ground-breaking secrets. But that does not trivialise my study. I march ahead, with penetrating eyes, jotting copious mental notes of my acute observations wherever I go.
A smile deterrent
I note that the mobile phone often serves as a smile deterrent. Its universal appeal seduces the young and the not so young to reach out to their mobile phones and devote every free moment to its charming, ensnaring ways. We, therefore, hardly maintain eye contact with those around us, which could have given way to a Duchenne smile.
Through my acute observation of people — known and unknown — I have come to appreciate that a smile can be earned at no cost at all. A warm hug from a grandparent, a chat with a close friend and building sandcastles with young ones all merit a broad Duchenne smile.
The other day, the loud gurgling of an infant seated in a stroller caught my attention. Her young father’s animated gestures as he read from a children’s book had her in splits. He flashed a beaming smile, delighted that he had managed to entertain her, while his wife optimised on the sale offers. Their interaction made me break into a smile and I realised that their chirpy engagement had brought cheer to all three of us. Our smiles were a genuine expression of contentment and happiness.
While we sometimes find ways and reasons to smile, I wondered if I could prompt someone to smile. I put myself to the test a few weeks back. While doing my veggie shopping, I raced another shopper to the counter to tear out clear storage bags from the roll.
Instead of utilising the bags, I quietly handed them to the elderly gentleman who was patiently awaiting his turn. He was taken aback by the gesture. He had not expected me to do him a favour and his brown eyes shone with gratitude. I would have loved to see his smile that was tucked behind the mask, but the glint in his eyes spoke for itself. His smile had not cost me a single dirham.
A kind gesture, a nod of approval or a warm greeting can effortlessly work its magic. But then, who has time for it? More importantly, do we really care?
Well, I do.
Seema Nambiar is a freelance writer