Woman holding smiling sign on her face outside smile street
Go full-mouth grin, right up to your eyes. Photo: Getty

EssayJune 26, 2021

Rules for smiling at strangers

Woman holding smiling sign on her face outside smile street
Go full-mouth grin, right up to your eyes. Photo: Getty

You’ll know me next time, writes Linda Burgess.

At 10, Joan is a teenager, in a real bra, and with a head stuffed full of the lyrics of the more yearning pop songs. A new town, a class full of new people and my eyes linger on the extraordinary enigma that is Joan. “You’ll know me next time,” she says. 

I wonder still when we choose to be the future grown up. My eyes linger now, 60 years later, on women in Wellington. When did they decide to be someone who never left the house without makeup? At what stage was no outfit complete without jewellery? When were fingernails something you had to pay specialised people to deal with? Is there a decisive moment; is it preordained? The older you get the more freely your eyes can roam, because you have the freedom gifted by invisibility. 

You won’t know me next time. 


We are wandering through France, the summer after we lost our baby, with John, a New Zealand friend. Life puzzles me. Where are the patterns? How can buildings last, how can machines last, how can trees grow and grow, how can a coin, a porcelain plate, last, when human life is so impermanent, when it ends so randomly? At 10, when I sat in dark picture theatres, my skin crawled with prescience. In 100 years’ time, I thought, as I regarded the shadowy profiles sitting so quietly around me, everyone in this picture theatre will be dead. Everyone. We sat through the newsreels, after which the movie proper would start. We saw the liberation of Auschwitz. We saw a mushroom-shaped cloud. I scanned the immobile profiles. Who in this theatre would be next to die?

As we walk through rural France, I can’t stop looking at people. The three of us, climbing towards a medieval tower, are approaching another small group, one woman, two men, like us, and I look at her and it must have been for too long because she is enraged. She lurches towards me like an unchained Rottweiler, and she’s screaming at me. Her friends reach to restrain her. I think she’s yelling “Boche! Boche!” because we’re not far from the German border and maybe my obvious fair-haired northernness made her mistake me for the enemy. But my friend John has heard her say “Vache! Vache!” He believes she is calling me a cow. 

Like many women, I’m inclined to smile at people when I pass them in the street. There are rules about smiling; I read them recently and discovered this is what I do already. You make eye contact and you don’t just smile, which could be mistaken for a smirk or even a sneer, you go for a full-mouth grin, right up to your eyes. Some people, especially women in your demographic, mirror your smile. Some force themselves to nod briefly, or at least stretch their lips a little. Some have minor anxiety attacks as we pass. Am I meant to know you? Have we met? You must try even harder if you’re walking towards someone who is possibly an immigrant. “Welcome to you!” your smile is saying. “Please believe me, this place is better for having you in it!”

There’s a girl sitting in the car outside the hairdressers. I’m 13 or so, she’s younger. You’re not meant to look at her, but as I walk past, just before I deferentially lower my eyes, I get a glimpse of her shocking paleness. Her mother is inside getting her hair done. The girl is bereft of all colour. Her blood is sick. She sits outside the hairdressers in the car: small, still, already almost lifeless. So nearly gone. 

I read that behavioural scientists at an American university researched smiling, as it related to the college-aged female on campus. Statistics showed that if men made eye contact with women, and women didn’t smile at them, the man was affronted, cheated, infuriated by this blatant display of female arrogance. A significant percentage showed their ire.

In the fourth form of our new high school, with a central hall still just an item in the long-term plan, we stood in rows outside for morning assembly. My English teacher was the senior mistress (the headmaster called her “My senior mistress” and I’d read enough Georgette Heyer to get the hilarious double-meaning). One day, as I was the last one packing up my books in class, she explained how she would scan the rows of girls and boys in their grey gymfrocks and grey shirts and ugly maroon blazers and they’d all be scowling. “And I get to you,” she said, “and you’re smiling!”


We’re driving up north and as we drive through Tirau there’s an exuberant demonstration going on. We drive past festivities of a sort. Joyous people line the street holding signs asking if you’d feed your kids formaldehyde, reminding you that socialism steals your self, explaining that Bill Gates is planting a chip in your arm. A couple of days later we’re further north, at Warkworth, and there they are again. This time I’m going to show them what I think and from the passenger seat I lean forward and I do something that wriggles its evil way out of my murky semi-primal memory: with my left index finger I draw a loop round and round my left ear. It’s 1960s teenspeak for “you are nuts”. 

Just too late I read the signs: honk if you support the nurses and oh God yes I do yes I do so sorry for that, I didn’t mean it oh sorry, sorry. Double the salary! Triple it! I smile – not a sneer, not a smirk – but too late.

She meets my look, the first one, and there won’t be a next time. 

Keep going!