Show Some Teeth

by Brooking Gatewood | 11/1/01 6:00am

In my few months here at Dartmouth, I've noticed a strange Dr. Seuss dichotomy in the students. We are at once friendly as the people of Who-Ville, and as unsmiling as the Grinch. I feel warm and happy and at peace with the world according to Dartmouth when strangers go to the extra effort -- albeit often needless and awkward effort -- to open doors for me. I find everyone to be relatively courteous in the dining halls and classrooms. I appreciate the relatively humane treatment of us froshy '05s, and sometimes, I admit, as an overly excited and energetic freshman, I want to gather everyone on the Green for a rousing chorus of "dahoo dores." We would make wonderful inhabitants of Who-Ville but for one small detail: we seem incapable of simply saying hello.

Now I walk everywhere on campus now, since my bike was stolen a month ago in front of Gile (drunken bike borrowers, please at least have the next-day courtesy to return them, if you remember where the hell your temporary transport came from). On my daily, multi-mile wanderings, I pass tens, hundreds of people. Of the people I know by name and see regularly that I pass, perhaps half say hello or smile. Of the recognizable faces that I pass, perhaps one tenth say hello, smile, or nod, being careful to avoid conversation requiring use of each other's unremembered names. And from the hundreds of passing strangers here on campus, I get nothing more than the amusement of watching each person's eye contact avoidance tactic of choice. Yes, you all know what I'm talking about, and we all do it. I have caught myself strategically checking my watch just when I might otherwise have to make awkward eye contact on those painfully long and straight sidewalks. It's a face-off of careful avoidance as you walk toward each other, mapping out when you should look to the mountains, when to stare at your shoelaces, when to suddenly search for something in your backpack. All this ridiculously contrived effort, just to avoid saying hello.

What's wrong with us? Why can't we just smile at strangers, at the nameless faces we've seen before, at the people we actually do know? Is it really so hard to simply smile at some of the people you pass as you hustle through your busy Dartmouth days?

A few weeks ago, my trippee group had its reunion dinner at Dean Lord's house (yes I had a dean as a trip leader and no, it wasn't weird). As he quizzed us about what we liked the most and least so far here, about half of us said that what bothered us the most was the way people didn't say hello. I was relieved to know that I'm not the only one who finds this odd, that it's not just some quirky Midwestern thing to smile at strangers (I'm from St. Louis). I have always heard that people are just friendlier in the Midwest, but regardless, I was also under the impression that in a small community like Dartmouth, there might be some sense of community, some general walking etiquette.

After this trippee reunion, I decided to make a concerted effort to smile and even dare to say hello to the people I passed walking around on campus. Every time I smiled at a blank face, it was a blow to my own cheerful spirits, and eventually, at the end of each day, I seemed to find myself again taking part in the seemingly acceptable sidewalk snubs.

If you don't see any reason in making the effort to smile at the people you pass here, I have a little St. Louis story that may help. There is a man that lives along a road I take almost every day. I don't know his name, few people do, but everyone knows who he is. He's the lawnmower man on Conway Road. He sits on his lawnmower every single afternoon, nearly year round, never actually mowing his lawn, but rather smiling and waving at the passing cars. Those of us who know he's there, we roll down our windows ahead of time and stick our arms out to wave back, and he smiles even brighter, and waves excitedly until we pass, like he knows we're still watching him in the rear-view mirror. Innumerable times have I been driving down that road, absorbed in my own little world, pitying myself or hating something, and then I see him sitting there, waiting for me to wave back. And I do, and in an instant my day seems better, the whole world seems better, because he smiled, and because I did too.

Americans these past several weeks have displayed a sense of humanity and love that I have never seen in this country. We have all been reminded of how precious our time is, of our real priorities, and of the little things that matter. One of those little things that matters is simple friendliness -- a stranger's smile, an unsolicited hello. To merely acknowledge someone as you pass him or her on the street can do as little as nothing, or as much as turn that person's day around. Sometimes a smile can act as such simple reminder of what really matters, of the innate human goodness that we all possess, and sometimes we really need those reminders. So please, even if the onsetting winter cold hurts your teeth or your throat hurts too much to talk from the cold that everyone has, suck it up and make the effort to make this campus a little friendlier.