Culture: Why are they smiling?

I think back to that first morning after arriving in Canada, when I decided to leave the secure house of my husband's family in Midland, Ontario, to explore the town that I would call "home" a couple of years later. I was amazed by the clean streets, the big houses and the green short cut grass. But what struck me as most interesting and confusing was the constant smile on Canadian faces, the "hellos" from faces I've never met, the encouragement that you are among friends.

Was I among friends? Was it a true or a fake smile? Why were they smiling at me when I wasn't smiling at them? I remember thinking that Canadians must be aloof for smiling at people they've never met, or maybe they were afraid to show their own personalities. The kindness of their smiles meant nothing to me. I came to compete, and I came to win – everything I put my mind to. And being smiled at would neither help me nor deter me.

Looking back, I know now that I was carrying the burden of my own concepts of dealing with the unknown in a new country. I left a European country where everything was a challenge, where a smile meant that you were doing well, and it would have seemed smug to others not in the same situation. I was accustomed, same as my parents and my grandparents, to frowning while walking on the streets: to wearing an appropriate look of concern, and appearing focused on the heaviness of my reality. I mocked the Canadian smile; it didn't make sense to me.

Four years later, after doing a co-op with a government agency, I met a lady who changed my views and deeply affected my approach toward cultural differences. She came from Germany more than a decade ago and she was watching me and my way of reacting to different social aspects that I was encountering. She remembered herself feeling amazed by the Canadian smiles; how foolish they seemed to her back then. But years later she realized – and taught me – that their smiles were a symbol, a symbol of politeness, a symbol of kindness, of acceptance and equality.

I was reading somewhere that if you want to know if a society is healthy you should look at its women. I would add that if you'd like to know if a society is healthy you should look at its people' faces, are they smiling? Are they approachable? I learned to smile myself, to say hello to people I don't know, to feel the wind in my face and not frown, and I've discovered that it helps.

I came to Canada ready to engage in battle with whoever stood in my way, in order to achieve my goals. But I learned that there's a place for everybody, and smiling makes it easier to overcome hardship. I learned that a smile gives you a chance, opens a door and makes you human. Just in case you were wondering…about my smile.