Why are Australians so scared to smile?

ABOUT two weeks ago, a woman walking towards me gave me a big grin. I felt immediately self-conscious because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Were my pants on inside out, was my hair standing up in a strange way? I wondered if maybe I knew her.

As I walked closer she nodded. I stopped and asked: ‘‘I’m sorry, do I know you?’’ She shook her head. ‘‘No, I just thought the colour of your hair looked beautiful in this light.’’

I was taken aback by her friendliness and the nice compliment. And it occurred to me afterwards that having a stranger smile at us in this country is so unusual that we feel thrown. Which contrasts profoundly to life in America.

The last time I went clothes shopping in LA, so many people came up and began interacting that it became hilarious. ‘‘I like the red.’’ ‘‘No, the blue, and she looks better in the tighter size.’’ Americans are famous for their garrulousness but it’s so much more than that. It’s pure friendliness, unguarded enthusiasm and curiosity.

In Israel, a man came up to me by the pool and told me that I needed to see a doctor as my ankles were swollen. ‘‘It could be oedema, my sister has oedema and her ankles are fat like yours,’’ he tactlessly warned. I told him I had just arrived from Australia and it was the flight. He looked relieved.

In Italy a woman told me off on a bus for not carrying an umbrella. ‘‘It is going to rain,’’ she chastised. I can’t imagine any of these things happening here. In fact, a friend who has been on crutches for a few months says she is dismayed by the lack of interaction.

I began wondering what tourists make of us. Do we appear remote and unfriendly, or are we as relaxed and easygoing as we think we are? In elevators one would not think so. But maybe we are just scared.

My mother maintains people always smile at her, because she is always smiling. On holidays in other countries we all intrinsically smile more.

So I began an experiment. And yes, I found that most people responded warmly. At first many looked apprehensive, and then they smiled or nodded back. If I chatted, they would chat.

It isn’t earth-shattering news: ‘‘Smile and the whole world smiles with you’’ (and probably could be filed under U for useless information) but just because many of us are culturally a bit reserved, it doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy connecting as much as people in more out- going societies. It is worth remembering, because inter- acting creates a bit of pleasure, and without the calories.



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