By Arman Kassam
You know the feeling. You are walking by someone that you barely know, or maybe they’re a complete stranger, and in a moment of abject terror, your gazes meet, and then all of a sudden, you feel compelled to smile.
The smile must not be too wide, or you will come across a bit creepy. And the smile must also not be too subtle, or they might mistake your response as something other than “mild contentedness.” Instead, you must tread that fine line between acknowledgement and passivity, connectedness and isolation. This is the greatest symbol of tepidness in our modern culture and the truest sign of our progress as an industrialized nation: the awkward smile.
Everything changed when I learned that you could extract geo-coordinate data from photos taken on iPhones. When I learned how easy it was to do this, I began taking selfies seconds after making unintended eye contact (and eventually awkwardly smiling) at some stranger. I then loaded up the data and found that over the course of five days, I had interacted with 42 random people in particularly weird and nuanced ways. The green diamond at the center of this map is the geographic mean of all of these points — in other words, the center of awkwardness in my universe.
This map is not so much a reflection of the awkwardness of Stanford’s campus as it is a reflection of my own variable awkwardness. Naturally, the places I frequent the most (Old Union, Casper, etc.) and the places with high traffic (Arrillaga) result in the greatest number of points. This project’s methodology was also limited by the typically consistent paths I take when I walk around campus, as well as the time of day I walk around.
Regardless, the evidence speaks for itself: Coming back to school and seeing people that you vaguely know, especially when a majority of those people live in the same quad as you, inevitably results in clusters of dreadful, if mild, discomfort.
What makes the awkward interaction so deeply discomforting? Perhaps it’s a spontaneous feeling of powerlessness — the mutual knowledge that you were looking at someone that you do not know, and they were looking right back at you. The stranger is the only other party with this intimate, secret knowledge, and a moment after this intimacy arises, the not-too-friendly but also not-too-neutral grin releases the tension and reestablishes normalcy. These are moments of quick and meaningless fright in the rocking sea of the everyday.
Maybe the awkward smile is the true villain because it gets the job done. It reestablishes a shared understanding of passivity. We walk around town expecting to get from point A to point B just like any other day, but it’s these hiccups along the road that remind us that there is no natural “ordinary.” We forge the ordinary with smiles that are more worthless than a Blockbuster gift card.
Of course, there is no better substitute for the awkward smile, and more importantly, why would anyone want to get rid of this tension-relieving mechanism? Having this shared body language lets us get on with our day without having to think twice about the strangers we pass. It’s a sad truth that I am so much more obsessed with destinations than paths, and though the smile is a villain for its blandness, I would still like to thank the stranger that smiles back. You are the person who lets me get on with my day.
Contact Arman Kassam at armank ‘at’ stanford.edu.