Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The dead face

Several years ago, there was a priest who used to come from Russia to solicit donations from my parish for the Dominican Mission that he was in charge of. One day he was describing coming back into the country and how one had to hold you face so as not to look "American". Americans, he said, had a lively look to them. There was a smile on their face, even when they weren't smiling. And it was a dead give-away to the border police and you were sure to get your baggage searched. He explained further that Russians had no such life to their faces. He called the look "the dead face" and then he demonstrated it. It is achieved by looking at a person directly, without seeming to see them and keeping your face and eyes absolutely and totally expressionless. And really,(knowing a couple of Russians) he was quite convincing. I could not hold the look for longer than a few minutes. But Father could hold it eternally it seemed.

Yesterday, while I was riding home on the bus, I realized that I was seeing more and more of "the dead face": in the other passengers, in people on the street, in shops and even in the reflection of myself in the window of the bus. I realized this was really the case when I sat right next to a woman with whom I had attended Mass for years and did not even recognize her...and she didn't recognize me either. When we finally did recognize each other, we were both very embarrassed and blamed it on the heavy coats and hats we were wearing. Who could recognize anyone in those heavy things?

But practically speaking, "the dead face" is the face you put on when you don't want people to talk to you or sit next to you. If you smile on the bus, even at people that you know, someone might decide to come sit next to you and talk to you. And some of these people, you really worry about talking to. Really.

But, at what price? At the price of bringing joy to another person? At the price of not recognizing your friends? At the price of not spreading the joy the God gave you? Why infect everyone with a bad mood, when I could infect everyone with a good one?

Yesterday, while I sat waiting at the Doctor's office, I read an article in Time Magazine about the "Happiness Effect". Some researchers are opining that if your friends are happy, you are more likely to be happy. Conversely, if they are sad, you are more likely to be sad. There are other effects that are being studied, too.

The upshot of the article is the viral infectiousness of behaviors, like a smile or a frown. They estimate that a smile can be passed on to a person 3.8 points of contact away! So the next time I catch sight of myself in the bus window reflection giving off my dead look, I think I'm going to remember to smile. Maybe that will make someone else's afternoon, later in the day.

Just something to think about.

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