“Hey, Smiley!” That was the call each morning as I walked to the bus stop. Part taunt, part genuine greeting. The dread, which has started prior to leaving the house, kicked into high gear. What was I in for this morning? Would they play keep away with my beanie again? Would there be the small shoves trying to get a reaction? Or would I get away with just the verbal taunting? Whatever it was, most mornings there was something. Yet what they saw was the smile. Always the smile.
‘They’ were the older kids at the bus stop. Junior high and high school. Taller, bigger, meaner. Three or four from the neighborhood that passed the time waiting for the bus by giving a hard time to the younger kids, mostly me. I seemed to be the favorite target. Maybe it was because I took it. I didn’t cry. I didn’t yell. I didn’t fight back. I just smiled. Inside though, that was something else. Inside, that is where everything lived. The anger. The fear. And the empathy, just a tiny bit of empathy. I still remember those mornings well….
I’ve always been introverted and socially awkward. I’ve been referred to as quiet and shy with a smile for as long as I can remember. It’s who I am. At least, it’s part of who I am or who I’ve been. But it’s not always been who I’ve wanted to be. The stress and anxiety that come with every social interaction is challenging. Some days leaving the house is challenging. Maintaining friendships and relationships is real work and draining. You miss out on get-togethers, holidays, birthdays, and backyard barbeques. And those are just the events with your friends and family. Social interaction with strangers, nah. If you let it, you will miss out on life. With life being such an amazing experience and adventure, I knew long ago that I had to find a way to move beyond the quiet and shy. To become something more than just introverted and socially awkward. I still have those moments of struggle, of anxiety, but I’ve learned how to live my life with a SMILE.
Smiling, it’s such a wonderful thing. It’s welcoming, it’s disarming. It’s warm. It’s kind. Somehow, I knew this instinctively. Somehow, I found the power of the smile as a young kid through happenstance. It didn’t keep me from getting picked on at first. But then it did. After a while, the older kids became fond of me. They started to pick on me less. They came to appreciate that I kept smiling. They, even on occasion, became my protectors. If other kids at school tried to pick on me, they’d stand up for me. By smiling I had won them over. By smiling I had shown my strength. By smiling I maintained my composure and weathered the storm. And I still smile today. When I am in situations where I am uncomfortable, I smile. It still has power. At the very least, I give people the impression I am enjoying myself. Those who approach me and interact with me do so believing I’m confident and friendly. It makes our engagement start with a positive tone that eases my anxiety and stress. It allows for me to have those moments to gather myself. And, coincidentally, it’s contagious. As the saying goes, “smile and the world smiles with you.”
Maintain. Every situation has a beginning and an end. That’s the mindset I use every single day. That’s my mantra when I’ve feeling socially awkward. Knowing, that if I can simply maintain for a few minutes, an hour, a couple hours, I’ll survive, life will go on, and all will be well. It’s not always easy; it takes practice. However, the mindset of maintain gives me just enough when nothing else will. It keeps my emotions under wraps until I can get away and breathe. What you’ll find though, is that with practice it’s easier, that you can go for longer periods of time, and that your maintaining becomes second nature. As you master the maintaining of your stress, anxiety, and emotions you find that you will slowly start to enjoy the social interactions. And the smile might even come from joy.
Intelligence. This has been a wonderful side effect. Hell, I’ve practically built my career off this. It’s amazing how intelligent you can appear when you combine your quietness with a thoughtful expression. “He must be putting a lot of thought into this.” “He is really paying attention.” “I know something is brewing inside that head of his.” Sure, lots of things are brewing, just not all of them productive or on topic. A lot of people like to talk and like to share their thoughts. A good portion of those thoughts aren’t necessarily based on facts. Which means a lot of people talk and say things that don’t necessarily make them come across as the most intelligent. So sometimes not talking makes you stand out and gives you the advantage. It can make you come across as thoughtful and intelligent. Now, for a one-two combo, you can utilize the strategic pause with the thoughtful expression. For those of you who have listened to my podcast you’ll have noticed that I use the strategic pause frequently. Like. A. Lot. However, in conversations, that five second pause between when the other person stops talking and you start talking can do incredible things. First, it’ll often make the other person keep talking. The awkward silence will be too much for them so they’ll need to fill it. This allows you to continue listening and maintaining. Secondly, when you do speak, you’ll give the impression that you are putting thought into your words as you choose them. You’ll come across as intelligent. Give it a try. Count to five (in your head, it’s weird if you do it out loud) before you answer and watch as you become the smartest person in the room. Of course, it does help if you listen, pay attention, and put some thought into what you are going to say.
Listening. Boy, you can learn a lot of stuff when you listen more than you speak. Most people love to talk, especially about themselves, their families, their jobs, their kids, and themselves. Being an introvert and socially awkward, I have found it difficult to talk about myself. Sharing doesn’t come naturally. In fact, both this blog and the podcast have taken me far outside my comfort zone. Listening is learning though. You learn about others. You learn about their interests and their lives. You can learn about the things they love and the things they hate. With all that learning comes knowledge. With knowledge comes power. Power to know what to say and what to talk about. The power to know what questions to ask so they keep talking and you can keep listening with enthusiasm. Then you don’t have to share. Then you don’t have to feel awkward. You can keep the focus on them. The best part is that they’ll walk away from the conversation thinking you are amazing. Because you listened and let them talk about themselves. It’s a win-win.
Enthusiasm. You’re smiling, you’re maintaining, you’re coming off as intelligent, and you get to listen more than you have to talk. And guess what?!?! You are doing all this in public! With friends, family, or even complete strangers. What wouldn’t you have to be enthusiastic about? You get to live your life again. Let that enthusiasm show. Let those people around you see that you are enjoying yourself and feeling good about your progress. Enthusiasm is how you go from the quiet, shy, wallflower to the person people remember. The person that people will gravitate towards. When you combine all these things with enthusiasm, you can walk on stage full of anxiety and still walk off a star. I do it on the regular. It’s what has allowed me to flourish in public settings and in public speaking. You’d never know that I was once ‘Smiley’. Until now.