Wave and Smile

One January many years ago found me fresh out of college, with a brand-new job, in a new place, and a new (to me) truck. I loved my new job, new town, and almost new vehicle. And I was so impressed by how friendly people were. I had grown up in Clarksville, Tennessee, a not so small town then (much bigger now!). I expected to see people I knew in Clarksville, but here in Athens, I hadn’t met many people yet. Even so, it seemed as if every other car I passed threw up a wave or tooted the horn in greeting. Wow, I thought. What a friendly little town. It definitely influenced the way I felt about my new home. Their friendliness to me, a stranger, had won me over.

One June Saturday, I had some business at the Post Office. And luck upon luck, there was a parking spot right in front of the door! How good can it get? My postal needs were being taken care of by the Post Master. We exchanged pleasantries about the weather and such, and then he asked, “Is that your truck out there?” “Why, yes, it is,” I answered.
“So! You’re the guy!” He said
“Huh?”

The Postmaster said, “I have a truck just like yours. People have thought they were seeing me all over town. Now, I realize it was you they saw. I can’t wait to tell my wife. Maybe you can get me off the hook with her.”

In that moment, I realized I had completely misinterpreted the friendly greetings. They weren’t waving at me, being friendly to the new kid. They thought they were waving at their long-time friend, the Post Master. Talk about feeling deflated. And a little silly, thinking these people were being friendly toward me when they were just mis-identifying my truck.

I had some choices about how to respond. I could be embarrassed at being wrong and be grumpy about it. Or, I could understand that some of the people who saw my truck thought they were waving at an old friend. In that case, if I didn’t wave back, they might think their old friend was being rude. It would then be my fault if they thought less of the Post Master.

So, I decided I now had an obligation to wave back for the sake of the Post Master. And I would also deliberately assume that the friendly waves were as much for me as for his sake.

My reasons for feeling good about Athens, TN doubled. Not only did I continue to enjoy their waves and smiles, I also now had a mission: to keep the Post Master’s reputation for being friendly, along with my own.

Most of life consists of making choices without enough information to make a fully informed decision. Often, we are wrong. But we have a choice. We can choose to see the world as a fearsome, threatening place, where every other face represents disaster and catastrophe waits at every turn, or we can choose to see the world as containing other people who are just as friendly as we. We can choose to adopt a positive attitude, can afford the energy it takes to throw up a hand in friendly salute, and find nothing wasted in offering a smile.

Yes, it is a deliberate decision to choose to see the world as friendly rather than threatening. Yes, I am occasionally wrong, and encounter genuinely hostile people. That doesn’t happen often. When it does, I usually try to be even friendlier toward them. My friendly response either cajoles them into opening up, or it shames them by exposing how silly their hostile attitude really is.

Each of us get to choose how to respond. In general, I prefer to wave and smile.

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