Multiple times over the past year, one of my friends has told me they felt scared of me before they got to know me. Just the other day, one of my best friends said to me that now, after two years, he was just beginning to understand my social cues, saying that for the longest time, he thought I was always angry. If it took two years to realize my furrowed brow is actually an indicator of anxiety and not anger, there is a non-zero chance that strangers think that I am angry at all times. I attribute this to my near inability and unwillingness to smile.
I don’t smile at people. Perhaps it’s a learned behavior; my parents seldom smile outside of times of genuine joy. Smiling at random people, even acquaintances, was a borderline faux pas in my community. Why would someone see me, or, for that matter, anyone else, and smile? Faces do not, for many people, spark intense joy.
My lack of a smile worked better for me before I arrived in Vermont, as everybody I knew prized stoicism. Forced smiles signaled insincerity. If I was smiled at, it was because I told a funny joke or because someone thought I was cute, both of which rarely happened. My face is best described by the German word backpfeifengesicht, meaning a face that badly needs a fist.
However, upon my arrival in Vermont, everyone smiled at me. It was incredibly off-putting. For me, the street has always been a place of anonymity. Expanding my interactions with others beyond socially coded areas made me deeply uncomfortable. I often remarked to my parents that Vermonters were either the nicest or the fakest people I’d ever met; either way, they confused me.
I’ve maintained my apathy towards smiling for much of my time here. If you know me, even tangentially, you have probably experienced smiling at me only to be greeted by a blank face. There are only five people on campus with whom I willingly initiate small talk. Trust me, I was not trying to spite you or scare you. Think of me like a snake. Not only am I more scared of you than you are of me, but, like a snake, I have no idea how people work.
After a friend informed me that a good deal of her other friends agreed that I was “scary and mysterious,” I decided that enough was enough. “Gage, you have a terrible case of resting bi**h face.” To get the most out of Middlebury, I had to learn to embrace the fulcrum of Vermont social interaction: the fake smile. Maybe, I would even consider venturing into the realm of small talk — ask people how they are doing and walk away before they can answer.
At first, I refused to assimilate and reciprocate these behaviors. If you don’t care how my day is going, don’t ask. However, I have now begun to see Vermont’s sociocultural quirks in a different light. The fake smile and the small talk are ways of validating that the other person deserves to be a part of our community. You aren’t trying to deceive me. While I may be uncomfortable with the means of communication itself, I can get behind the underlying message. Nonetheless, I won’t be taking the fake smile home. If I walked around my hometown smiling at people, antianxiety scripts would jump off the charts.
For those of you who have similar issues, there are things you can do to learn the way of the Vermonter. Practice your best friendly student impression, even if it isn’t pretty in the beginning. Trust me; it won’t be. My first attempt to fake a smile at a friend in Proctor resulted in them telling me something along the lines of, “wow, that was the scariest smile I’ve seen.” Maybe think about getting a job that requires using your new tools. I became a tour guide. I should have been a terrible employee. At one point, my therapist prescribed that I sit in a mall food court for three hours — twice a month — to get over my agoraphobia. However, as with everything, you get better with time. I’m sure my first tour was a disaster; almost certainly, none of those kids applied to Middlebury. However, I’ve kept at it, and according to reviews, I actually come off as friendly and charismatic. For those of you who know me, I grant you full license to be shocked.
Middlebury, Vt. may very well be a microcosm of larger American culture. However, some social expectations, like the emphasis on the smile and small talk, are, in my experience, unique. I am only half joking when I say that I believe Vermonters, by birth or four-year indoctrination, are ruled by these cultural norms. Those of us who are unfamiliar with them need time to adapt. We need practice and coaching to read your social cues and send effective ones ourselves. We will learn to use your tools but need encouragement and help to do so. Give us some slack, but not too much.