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Richard Kyte: A simple smile can send a powerful message

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MUG -- Richard Kyte

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of "The Ethical Life" podcast.

My wife and I were having breakfast in a small-town cafe when a man got up from a nearby table and walked over. “Good morning,” we said.

He said, “You sure are having lots of rain around here.”

We agreed.

“Not much rain where I’m from,” he said.

He was a farmer from Nebraska. His family had driven up to attend a relative’s wedding and was heading back home in a couple days.

He stood there grinning for a bit, then wished us a good day and ambled back to his table.

That sort of thing happens all the time when I’m out with my wife. I think it’s because she smiles so much. Strangers just look at her and feel welcome. It’s the darnedest thing.

A great deal of research has been done on the health benefits of smiling: It improves one’s mood, reduces stress, enhances the immune system and lowers blood pressure. People who smile a lot even live longer. But all these benefits miss the main point: Smiling improves relationships.

A smile is an outward expression of an inward state of mind. It is often assumed to be an expression of happiness, but I think it is more than that. A smile suggests kindness; it also indicates an absence of negative emotions such as fear and anger. That’s why a person wearing a genuine smile is rarely defensive.

In today’s world it has become commonplace to praise people who are seen as fighters, as if that is the only way to get along in a world of disagreement. You often hear praise for those who are willing to “fight for their beliefs,” “defend their way of life,” “stand up to their opponents.” People who talk that way seem to believe friendliness is a sign of weakness. They don’t know that one can be serious without being solemn.

We would all be much better off if we took Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice: “Let our affection flow out to our fellows; it would operate in a day the greatest of all revolutions.”

But letting affection flow out is not something we can do simply by intending it. Like all virtues, kindness follows a developmental process that takes time to unfold. One begins by imitating the behavior of a person one admires, the behavior turns into a habit, the habit changes one’s perception, and gradually the change in perception shapes one’s character.

The key thing about smiling is that it is outward directed. A person wearing a genuine smile is not worried about what others think of them; they are expressing their attitude of good will in advance of any interaction.

The outward-directed nature of a smile is what Emily Dickinson expressed when she wrote

“They might not need me — yet they might —

I’ll let my Heart be just in sight —

A smile so small as mine might be

Precisely their necessity —”

Smiling indicates virtue because one’s character is comprised of how one treats others, not how one is treated. That idea can be found repeatedly in ancient ethical writings.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed: “The character of a foolish person is to look for benefit and harm to come not from himself but from things outside; the character of a wise person is to look for all benefit and harm to come from himself.”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

The Golden Rule, some version of which can be found in all the world’s great religious traditions, advises us always to treat others as we would wish to be treated. Who, in their right mind, would prefer to be greeted with a scowl than a smile?

Smile often enough and you will find people responding differently to you. That’s because nearly everyone, regardless of what they might say, desires connection more than confrontation.

Augustine observed that human beings desire connection so much that we find it intolerable to spend time with a person we cannot talk to. We would much prefer the company of a dog than a person who does not share our language.

Unfortunately for Augustine, he lived during the time of the Roman Empire, and the ancient Romans did not smile. There is not even a word for it in Latin. Smiling has not always been, as it is today, the universal language of kindness.

One day my wife and I were standing in a grocery store checkout line. I noticed a toddler sitting in a cart ahead of us, leaning over as far as he could to make eye contact with my wife, a huge grin lighting up his grubby little face.

“Why don’t kids ever smile at me?” I asked her.

She looked at me as if I’d just asked the dumbest question in the history of dumbness.

“You have to smile first,” she said.

Then she shook her head … and smiled.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and co-host of “The Ethical Life” podcast.


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