How many times have you shared a smile with a stranger? Think about it. Just today: when you bought your coffee and she told you to have a nice day, when you bumped into him on the sidewalk and you both mumbled apologies, when you crossed the road quickly because that driver insisted that you cross first. Each exchange contains a brief moment of eye contact and complimentary smile. Is this due to human nature? No. This behavior is cultural.
Whether because of our Hollywood-obsessed psyche or our enormous investment in perfected orthodontics, America is without a doubt, addicted to smiling. Americans will smile when we are happy, when we are uncomfortable, when we are see something funny or slightly interesting.
I come from a town where people going for their morning power walks will greet you with a big grin and a chipper, “Good morning!”
To me, this level of friendliness wasn’t excessive or grating, it was almost common courtesy. To the rest of the world, this exchange seems to equate to Disney On Crack. You just try to squeeze in a “Bonjour” to a French lady going for her morning power cigarette and you would be lucky to hold some brief, albeit hostile eye contact.
This inevitably has an effect on street performance.
Usually there is a little song-and-dance that goes along with the interaction between performer and audience. Some people are sitting near you and will hear a whole song; many more are passing you, catching only snippets of your songs as they go about their daily tasks. Usually the people passing will throw you a smile as you play. You take this for granted. It seems natural, second nature! Which makes it all the more unnerving when smiling is somehow subtracted from the routine.
When I was in Germany over the summer I took my guitar with me, for company if nothing else. The first few times I saw some interesting results. Like always, I had tried to find a relatively inoffensive place to play — a public park in the middle of the day. Strangely, the overwhelming reaction I got was uncomfortable.
I had made sure not to leave my case open or anything resembling a tip jar and yet, when I smiled at anyone, they hurried away as if I had asked for their firstborn child. It wasn’t unpleasant, just bizarre and invigorating. I had the power to make every passing stranger visibly nervous. Sometimes a passerby would breathe strangely loud through their nose as they walked quickly by, which I totally counted as acknowledgement. Not a single smile was seen.
Of course location is everything. When I visited a university town in Germany I got a much warmer response. Maybe too warm in some respects.
Again I had chosen a public park. Most of the populace gave me a wide diameter of space; if they did look at me it was hesitance bordering on suspicion. A young couple, however, approached and set up a blanket a little ways in front of me. I wasn’t acknowledged throughout this process but they could have chosen anywhere to sit so I figured they could be considered my audience.
Then they began to suck face about five feet from me and my bench. It would have been cute had it not been mildly gross, but hey, I’m a good sport so I serenaded their little picnic until they got up to leave and the guy thanked me — presumably for helping him get laid.
A while later an older couple approached as I was playing some Bob Dylan. They handed me a couple euros, which I graciously accepted.
“Danke!” I said, butchering the accent.
“Ah,” said the husband, picking up on my foreignness. “You speak English?”
“Yes!” I replied. “I’m from America!”
We began to talk about Bob Dylan and songwriting and the ’60s.
“You know,” I said after a while, “Street performing is different in Germany. People here seem nervous, they hardly make eye contact. You two are the first to approach me and start up a conversation!”
“Well we are not German,” they declared. “We are Swiss!”
“Ah!” I said, as if that explained everything.
Maybe it did. After a bit, they left, smiling as they waved goodbye.
Though I don’t consider myself one to get homesick, it was nice to come back to a country where passersby give you a gold-star smile for effort. We are addicted to smiling and we are nowhere near to finding a cure, and just the thought of it leaves me grinning.
For some great makeout music contact ELLY OLTERSDORF at firstname.lastname@example.org