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5 Lessons I Learned While Trying to Make the World a Nicer Place

I became one of Them. I frowned in mere anticipation of rudeness. I cut off other drivers because, hey, they probably would have cut me off anyway. I frowned for no other reason than to frown, and acted rudely just because I could.
09/16/2015 01:54pm ET | Updated September 16, 2016
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I made it my mission to understand -- and take on -- the world of non-smilers and rude folks, if only for a week. Here's what I learned during my journey to put the "kind" back in humankind.

It used to be that the deadpan, trance-like stares that penetrated deep into nothingness were reserved for catwalks. You know, fancy pants panache. The quasi-catatonic look that subtly whispers "I see you" yet boldly screams "but I'm really thinking about what's on TV later."

Ladies and gentlemen, these days, that attitude seems to have jumped right off the pages of high-style magazines and into our own backyard. That "I know you're there but so what" attitude is all around. The grocery store. The gas station. The fitting room.

Blank faces where entire transactions take place without so much as an utter of the greeting known as "hello" are commonplace. Oh, and forget about the genuine comment that typically follows the nice greeting: "How are you today?" If it is said, it's often preceded with an indistinguishable facial expression that looks more like a baby about to pass gas than an attempt to smile.

Mary Tyler Moore did it. I can too.

Sigh.

I've read articles about studies that prove the endorphin-releasing benefits of smiling, contributing to better moods and even enhancing immune systems. I recalled quotes about smiling and how the whole world smiles with you.

Time to turn these frowns upside down, I thought. Yes, I would forge on, despite the rudeness that surrounded my every move. Mary Tyler Moore turned the whole world on with her smile and darn it, I can too.

Well, I'd try my best.

Lessons Learned While Trying to Make the World a Nicer Place

1. Trying to figure everyone out is impossible: let it go

I've tried to justify non-smilers and rudeness with thoughts that everyone has bad days. Maybe they don't feel well. Maybe they just don't want to be working here. Perhaps, as Kayne West suggested, smiling simply doesn't look cool.

I've gone even further, delving into memories of my Psych 101 classes. Maybe these frowns of fury were masks covering up deep-seeded personal woes. Narrowed eyes and tight lips were outward displays of coping with difficult times. Fido passing. A bad breakup. A bad haircut.

Blamed it on technology. We can crank out an LOL or a smile icon, and we text faster than we talk. All that, but minus that important element of one human looking at another directly in the eye (gasp!) and (gasp again) . . . smiling or saying "good morning." Perhaps we've just forgotten how to express kindness and smile as we're wrapped up in the notion that staying in touch is all about touching the "send" button.

Blamed it on the times. Pain at the pump. Politics. Finances. Surrounded by such frustrating matters begets grumpiness and a bad attitude.

Even blamed it on myself. Perhaps in the throes of my own stress, I was seeing the world a little less "glass half full."

However, trying to figure the world out around you, especially when it doesn't mesh with your own niceness principles, is not only exhausting, but it's pointless. It is what it is. People smile, frown, sneer or act nicely for a variety of reasons. Trying to pinpoint what makes non-smilers and kind folks tick only takes away from enjoying my own happy moments and positive thoughts.

2. Rudeness can bring about kindness

While trying to put the "kind" back in "humankind," I got all Sarah Ban Breathnach on myself, aiming to spread "simple abundance" of comfort and joys towards others when they least expected (or, deserved) it.

Therefore, I unleashed an even broader smile to the cashier who was busy chatting with the bagger the entire time. I offered a friendlier and louder than normal, "have a good day" to the waiter who merely pointed, and grunted "refill?" I held the door for those behind me, despite the fact that my nose was nearly broken by the person who let it slam in my face seconds earlier.

3. You become more compassionate

Maybe much of this so-called rudeness hasn't really been rudeness after all.

In the past, I'd chalk up certain actions as ill-mannered folks who thought only of themselves. But perhaps (and yes, here I go thinking too much again) such people have so much on their mind that holding a door, as an example, is the least of their concerns.

I learned to consider other reasons behind certain behaviors, rather than jump to the rudeness conclusion.

They could have come from the doctor's office after receiving life-changing health news. Their spouse could have just been laid off. It could be that their arm, still healing from a car accident, couldn't stand to hold a heavy door any longer.

There are reasons outside of your own mind set that make people do what they do, and that's okay.

4. Trying too hard to be nice can change you (and not necessarily for the better)

At times, I realized people still looked at me like a deer in headlights when I grinned in their direction. Is she up to something? About to rob the place and trying to throw me off? Is she coming on to me?

The niceness thing became tiring, and to a point, angered me. Why can't people just be nice? Why aren't others enjoying my pleasant words and facial expressions?

Done with giving the world more sugar than vinegar, I indulged in the F-word - Frowning. I chose to become dark. Putting money on the counter instead of a clerk's hands kind of dark. Hah!

I ordered at restaurants and didn't even look at the waitress. How 'bout that! Watch out, world.

Warm woolen mittens and cute little kittens . . . bah!

Giggling children? Nope. They too, will grow up to become a frowner gone wild.

A frown for a frown it was. No more smiles, no more polite greetings or caring inquiries.

I became one of Them. I frowned in mere anticipation of rudeness. I cut off other drivers because, hey, they probably would have cut me off anyway. I frowned for no other reason than to frown, and acted rudely just because I could.

For a week.

Turns out, I just don't have much badassery in my bones. I like being kind and believe in the power of niceness.

5. Genuine actions make all the difference

Somewhere between dark daggers of defiance and tiptoeing through the tulips, reality sets in--or should set in. For me, it's that spot that's overflowing with decorum, smiles, and caring actions. It's a comfort zone where people extend genuine - a key word, I ultimately learned -- expressions of pleasantry and common-sense courtesy, mixed in, of course, with the ability to deal with those sometimes crazy, everyday moments we all experience.

I eventually discovered that I shouldn't keep looking at this whole smiling and rudeness issue as some kind of personal "let's see exactly how rude this crazy world is" experiment. I began extending genuine smiles -- ones that came from my heart -- instead of ones that attempted to crack open dark, cold hearts just for the sake of it.

Not trying so hard to figure other people out and letting go of seemingly rude personalities was the right thing to do.

Interesting how when I stopped focusing on the frowns, I saw more smiles.

This post originally appeared on Jen Lilley's Thought Buffet about six years ago. This version contains edits.