At a recent visit to Oxford Street, I noticed shop assistants have stopped smiling at customers. Worse still, I felt that we the customers stopped expecting a smile, even when handing over our precious money to buy what they're selling us. Everyone in the shops seemed to have that I-am-so-cool-to-smile face on, as though smiling is best left to the village idiots.
I always smile at shop assistants, a big smile, when I engage with them. Some of them look suspicious or simply stunned. Of course, there are life circumstances in which a smile won't happen. If someone's having a bad day, for example. On the tube, of course, we know a smile is high treason. What I'm talking about though is the day to day social interaction with people - at the supermarket, the coffee shops, the gym - it seems we're too busy, too cool, to smile.
In the workplace I routinely notice people who avoid smiling to communicate a variety of signals. The "I'm too important to smile at you" simile-avoidance has been around as long as power has. But now, we have new and more urgent smile-avoidance signals - such as the, "I am too busy to smile" or the "nothing can ever amuse me" non-smile. Every other gay man I come across seems to have this "nothing will ever amuse me" look. Gay bars, especially the 'cooler' ones have become simply a room of po-faced men who look like their mothers have just died. Perhaps a lack of a smile is a way of protecting yourself from getting hurt. After all, what if someone doesn't smile back? Think of the humiliation.
This isn't a city-centric or London-centric thing either. In Cornwall last month, a man serving me at a bar was saying the nicest things to me, although for some reason the corners of the mouth remained stubbornly unmoved throughout the conversation. It has become uncool to smile perhaps. I talked to a friend about this and he said, "Smiling is for old ladies at the bus stop." There is nothing wrong with old ladies at a bus stop, especially if they smile. My mum and dad are deaf, and they are not able to gauge someone's warmth by their voice. They depend on an expression, a frown, a grimace - especially a smile.
If we lose the joy of smiling in our day to day interactions, we lose a great deal more than a display of our imperfect teeth. We lose the currency to communicate, to express desire, to reassure. So please don't be cool, please smile.