When Did Gentle Become Weak?

San Francisco Historic DistrictDave Eggers’ 2006 novel, What Is the What, opens with a violent robbery for which the narrator, a Sudanese refugee, blames himself. Earlier that day, he came across his attackers in his neighborhood, and smiled at them. Now held at gunpoint, the refugee asks himself, “Why did I smile at this woman? I smile reflexively and it is a habit I need to break. It invites retribution.”

Is America really the kind of place where people will rob you because you are too nice?

I think yes.

Recently at the library, I was checking in books alongside a co-worker in his sixties. And he told me that I smile an awful lot.

“Yeah,” I said and swished another book under the barcode scanner, “and I get the sense it’s not always a good thing. Has it always been that way in American culture, so suspicious of nice-ness?”

“Well my grandma told me only stupid people smile all the time.”

“So a long time then.”

We laughed at that. But—

But.

In Russian class, one of my classmates told me that he imagined my smile had served me well in Thailand. But not for Russia. You have to look more grim, he advised.

Well, but there are so many different kinds of smiles.

The point, in Thai culture, is that you never have to be unpleasant. Even if you are angry. Even if you are staring down a police line. I mean, why make a bad situation worse? It’s not passive-aggressive. Everyone near you—with any decent radar at all—knows you’re furious. But you don’t have to make a scene about it.

In the cultures where I feel most at home, other people’s comfort is always a consideration. This isn’t weakness. It’s simply good manners. And common sense. Society is a machine. And it runs best when well-oiled—with courtesy and a ready, sincere smile.

Of course there are plenty of people in the world who deserve to be kicked in the teeth. Sociopaths for one.

But it’s part of responsible adulthood to distinguish between threats and everyone else.

Which means most everyone else. Just other bumbling human beings like ourselves.

I‘ve never really understood the loud, blustering swagger of Americans.

And they’ve never understood the quiet, contemplative force that is your average introvert—or non-Westerner. And thus they are perpetually surprised when I push back.

A surprise that quickly abates.

After all, they’d rather live next to a grinning idiot than a river running quiet and deep.

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