The Smile Project

Tanvee Nabar:


Part one of this excercise was carried out at Majestic from 9 onwards upto about 11 :15.

The excercise was born from the idea that people do not generally smile at each other . The smile is simply a representative type of interaction. A smile is easy and quick still we do not see random smiles between strangers. We wanted to see, how smiling at strangers in an area could alter it.

I started by smiling at people individually, so that they would think that the smile was for them. I would establish eye-contact and then smile a broad smile. I smiled at men and women of all sorts and ages. There were diffent reactions to this. I tried diffrent smiles, i tried smiling from diffrent places – from above or below the viewer. I found that smiling above my glasses or from the corner of my eye is taken as flirting and that diffrent durations of smiles can connote different things.

Men were the easiest to make eye contact with. They mostly walk making eyecontact with people in general so intentioanlly making it is not so hard. They reacted in diffrent ways to the smiling. Some returned it.  Some were a bit off-footed and just walked on by or stared. Some unfortunately got quite excited by this gesture and followed me around. Out of some 5 persuers, only two were  threatening in anyway and one only because he was wearing a mask.  What was interesting was that the curious ones asked me questions, which according to plan we were not allowed to answer – so in french because they so avidly believed i was not from this country. Which on hindsight made me think that maybe they thought smiling  was a cultural thing.

Women were the disappointment. Women were typically in a hurry with their eyes set on their destination. When focusing on people around women focus not on the eyes but instead on the neck area of a person or look at the ground. All this makes making eye-contact with a woman quite difficult. Of those that i did catch – some returned it often hesitatingly. Women are often in pairs or groups so many of them ended of giggling and saying things like ‘ shes here again’ or ’shes smiling!’ to each other. Some actually (men included) sidestepped and actually took themselves out of my line of sight or my path. Smiling can be intimidating – from previous experience this is often because the person is unaware of what you are smiling about which can make them nervous.

From this is born the idea of  ’Attacking with a smile ‘ When i was faced with a man who tried to cheekily return my smile with raised eyebrows and a kiss-ing face – i giggled n laughed at his face from my place a good way away. I then intentionally approached him – the closer i got the weaker his response got, until i was right next to him and he refused to look at me.

Smiling and getting a smile back from children made me reflective. It showed me what we are like before ‘the big bad world’ conditions us differently.

What i did notice was after about 2 hrs of the 10 of us doing this, people were actually smiling more readily – which goes to show how smiling at starngers in a public space can change it.

Part 2 of this activity took place at the MG road and Brigade road area from 6 onward.

In order to try this out on a totally diffrent sort of public from that at Majestic, we choose this spot.

Crossword & Mota arcade – People were more intrested in their books or purchases. We recieved tight measured smiles in return. Catching some one’s eye was hard because they were looking at the shops or reading. The staff did notice someting fishy as did the rest of the people after a bit of time.

Brigade road & Church Street – We rambled up brigade road. I smiled at a lot of people of diffrent ethinicities. Unlike what Neha says about the North-eastern people being more open, none of them so much as caught my eye. People were sparse – and few looking anywhere other than the shop windows. Church street was a futile attempt as there was no light for our smiles to so much as be seen.

MG Road – People smiled back, especially some foreginers. We may even have walked in on a public intervention being carried out by these Americans who asked us if we though it was going to rain hard and if we knew Caren. They were quite surprised to hear we all had the same name.

Barton Centre – Barista  –  We all sat around on different seats and smiled at people at other tables. I managed to scare a man enough that he did’nt look in my direction again. What was intresting was that by smiling at people in Barista we managed to clear 3 tables. This reaction to our activity was quite unprecedented i thought. I’d never had imagined that people would become so uncomfortabe by our smiles so as to actually leave.

At the end of the day, I had to conclude that i had much prefferd the reactions at Majestic. I did not like the measured formality of people in the MG road area. However we had intresting questions to think about the nature of smiles and their connotations and the idea of inflicting a sort of violence with smiles.

Pooja Gupta:

What does it mean to go and smile at people around us ? How is the smile perceived each time and in different places ?
While smiling today the one thing i realized was that we smile very rare on a regular basis and also that the world would be a better place if people smiled more often at each other.
It was interesting how most people looked away specially the women while the men seemed more curious as to why we were smiling at everybody. Some of them at first acknowledged the smile, but, when smiled at again did not seem to like it as they seemed to have thought of us being up to something. Also, it was more accepted by people if we smiled at them individually whereas if there were too many of us smiling at them then they simply wondered why and looked away or walked away. All this comes back once again to the point where we see in human nature, that everybody at all times is looking for reason. Why is it that we have to have a reason for everything we do ?
Some people also followed a few of us and that has to do with a higher degree of curiosity aroused within them, which is only because of us repetitively smiling at them. What we could see was that a first smile would usually be taken casually and there after people looked for reasons as to why were smiling.
Personally i think it is very important as to what kind of smile you are letting out and also the number of times you smile at a person within a given time span.

Saumitra Chandratreya:

Well i was in a complete state of failure and disappointment when we started it in the morning. I was disappointed as i tried making an eye contact with many strangers which included men , women and teenagers but got very few reactions. Women were not even looking at me they used to either ignore me or they used to look away if i could make an eye contact. Many men thought that i know them or they know me and hence i am smiling at them. Teenagers had blank look. After the breakfast it all changed. i got lots of responces and also many of thenm smiled back. But people who smiled back were from certain classes of society. There were some people who were hesitent to smile but gave half smile. There were some people who got stressed when they saw me smiling. There were some who were smiling in the begining but when i made an eye contact they just stopped smiling. All this tell something about society and the space itself. It is clear that certain people who smiled they are really feeling the that im ready for conversation or im inviting them. Some people who got stressed must be people who are not as open as one may expect and people who ignored me did not want to waste their time. Now there are certain experiences that i want to share.

There was this family who was walking on the bridge. It was a family of three. The husband the wife and their teenage son. So i was trying to make an eye contact with tih son who was not even looking streight at eye level. So i kept trying to make an eye contact but it failed. But he looked once and again he started looking at the ground again. but this attracted his mother’s attention. She started staring at me with frown.

Then there was this sex worker again onthe bridge. When i was about to pass her i looked at her and smiled ….so even she smiled and winked and then she did a gesture of come here. I passed her and then i went and i stood nearby. She kept staring and then some one distracted her.

I was climbing down the bridge when i made an eye contact with this man who also happened to climb down i smiled at him. First he hesitayed and then he not only smiled but he also mde a gesture of question with his eyebrows.

Then there was this woman with whome i had an eye contact with twice. At first she ignored me but then when i met her again she gave me a smile.

Shrikar Marur:

An action as simple and as familiar and as innocent and pure as a smile would have such an adverse effect on its receivers. The first module of the exercise before breakfast was a failed mission in my case as everytime I walked past a person and tried even before I could initiate a smile, he/she would just look away, not in an attempt to avoid eye contact but a natural reaction most people tend to have. Even when I did manage to create eye contact, people just looked at me for a fraction of a second and then either looked through me or looked away, not reacting to my out of place and out of context gesture.

The second round was relatively better as people noticed my smiling but presumed I was either on a phone conversation or was lost in thoughts. The only time I was noticed as a person doing something completely unnatural was when I walked on the two bridges with my girl classmates and tried smiling at passersby. It was at this time when people realized we were, as a group of us were doing something. It was towards the end when I stared at a person waiting for the person to look at me and establish eye contact and I forced a smile down his eyes that they reacted.

The evening walk in Brigade road was relatively better as people for one didn’t notice us smiling and the ones who did notice my smiles mostly returned the smile.

Neha Bhat:

“ Madam, kitna charge karega?”

This is was my first experience of being mistaken for a sex worker and being approached outright at a bus stop. Was I leering? Was I ‘sexily’ dressed? Did I wink and gesture lewdly?

No, all did was smile.

Maybe I didn’t smile at only the people I knew. Maybe I did make eye contact with a person to make the smile on my face evident. Are these things ‘wrong’?

Did I then, ask to be followed and be categorized as someone ready to be picked up from the street?
Smiling at the bus stop invoked responses of various kinds- from shock, to surprise to mostly, thrill and delight in a man’s face. It was observed that women looked away and ignored the smile, that I made evident, was for them, altogether. Along with socio-cultural and economic aspects of a response to a smile, I concluded a connection to geographic location .Also, young boys from the North Eastern part of the country, seemed to respond in a way that was far more open than a young man from any other part of the nation.

What were the intonations of the kind of smile I was giving?

When is a smile threatening?

How could I use a smile as a defense mechanism?

There were also questions of the definitions of ‘shady’, ‘creepy’ and ‘slutty’ smiles that I dealt with.

Although all these will always remain unanswered, a project like this took smiling from a casual body-lingual sign and magnified it to emphasize the deep rooted connotations of small gestures in our behavior, we often ignore or take for granted.

Prerna Bishnoi

Seriously Smiling

24th August 2009

My cheek bones hurt but on the other hand my facial muscles have loosened up. My gums went dry and often I was unable to close my mouth, me and my large teeth; and all I did was SMILE.

Majestic bus stand transit space for thousands of Bangalorians going to work and tourists coming into this IT city called Bengaluru. Amongst all the bus catching, changing, missing were 9 individuals, walking about in circles with a smile on their face.

A smile, my smile, to conserve energy I made sure I had 2 smiles one non toothy, pursed lipped (as hard as I could try) and one with a full exposure of 60% gum and 40% teeth. I walked about making eye contact with males and females alike both pre and post breakfast and giving them what I considered and rehearsed in my head as a warm genuine smile. Through most of the time I spent smiling at majestic my smile for one wasn’t misinterpreted as slutty or sexy, but it seemed like everyone was trying to read between the teeth. Many men looked at me funny and suspiciously like I was a stranger going beyond my limits of being one. Some men stopped to gaze at me from top to bottom leaving me humiliated and feeling inhuman more object like. I sometimes met their gaze and continued to make eye contact and smile even after having passed them making them turn to look at me. What is it about a smile?

Quite strangely some men shied away, battered their eyelashes and looked away. Were they embarrassed by a woman’s smile?

Or is it a case of mistaken identity?

A sex worker smiles and makes eye contact… are they putting 2 and 2 together?

Why can’t it be just a smile one with accolades?

There were times, many times, when I felt my smile automatically broaden in response to their response.

One man almost thought I was going to start a conversation and opened his mouth to speak. Smile is the beginning or an end of a conversation not the conversation itself?

I smiled, they smiled, I smiled some more, they smiled some more- I broadened their smile, that’s when most men shied away.

I broke into a smile- they did too.

Then, there were those who took the effort to uncover their mouths and face the deadly swine flu virus, only to smile at me.

Ah! The gaze, I experimented with- a hard stare, a constant eye contact, a soft eye contact not prolonged with my eyes finding themselves back to the open air within seconds. Each made a difference.

That persistent smile, not once, twice but thrice! Follow me- is that what I said?

He made eye contact as I moved up and down, I smiled, but then it was more than that smile, “the conversation was being given a direction”, I thought as his thumb stuck to point at himself.

Women were a different story, with their gaze so low or their blinks so fast. There were instances where they were smiling and my smile just brought an end to theirs.

That suspicion glaring as their lips tightened into a straight line.

The odd couple I smiled at, who were already red with all the flirting and intimacy stopped dead in their tracks, my smile was misinterpreted!


In the bus I tried to smile at pedestrians, maintaining eye contact leaving them with a half smile and a big question mark.

Are there different types of smiles?

A sarcastic one.

A defensive smile.

A genuine warm smile.

A flirty smile.

A cheeky school girl smile.

An intimidating smile also known as the gang smile is like a weapon much like “the staring down” one, but in a way more affable.

BRIGADE, M.G, CHURCH-their smiles

Add one more to that list- the formal smile.

Walking down these roads, going inside Crossword, Barista and Mota arcade, we smiled, I smiled, the same Majestic smile (no pun intended) and became the recipient of many a smiles but they all seemed to be rehearsed for such situations, the word courtesy I think! There wasn’t that warmth that I felt at the bus stand.

As we walked there was one “puchkawala” who was so delighted looking at the 9 of us smile like we’d made his day!

Then there was that smile that I ‘flashed’ the man at Barista, a genuine one, but indeed room for misinterpretation.

Does a smile stand by itself or is there that cock of the head or that raising of the eye brow that adds that little ‘extra’ to it?


As I smiled back into Yelahanka on the bus, it occurred to me that a smile isn’t a curve stuck on your face, it has meaning. Today it was forced with 90% pretence but by the end of it, it was most natural. Why have I shied away from acknowledging another person’s presence anywhere may it be in a bus, a park or any public place. So does it require a stirring from within? Does it require an individual to disconnect from the usual “hansi toh phansi” attitude to accept a smile from a stranger? What will it take for the smile to become a greeting, a conversation without nuances?


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