Danish divagations II (the smile)

After some time here in Denmark, I came to realize a certain Danish cultural trace (at least this is what I’m able to catch as a foreign). Walking down on the street, it is not uncommon to be surprised by someone smiling at you. Yes, people that are completely unfamiliar to you can look at you and … smile to you! It has happened to me at the supermarket, at the park, and at the street. Typically, it is a glance of a smile, but even so a smile.

First, of course, I thought that it was something addressed to me. Then I started to check out which kind of person used to do that more frequently. The result of this rough “survey” was that older woman used to smile more often that the younger ones. Well, but eventually I was also gifted by some young girl smile.

In a self-centered culture, where the face is a proxy to, obviously, the self, I think my first reaction was entirely understandable. The person somehow only exists to the other when she is seen by the other. More specifically, when their eyes meet. Social encounters – like at public spaces – are ruled out by an impersonal code according to which, if my eyes turn out to meet your eyes, immediately I’m supposed to shift them away – for instance, to the sky or the other’s shoes.

But what should I think when in addition to eyes contact, the experience comes with a smile? Both as quick as lightning? When my eyes glance off someone’s eyes as we walk past on the street, a sort of “relationship” is immediately settled. What kind of relationship? Well, you feel like beeing recognized, but not as Pedro, a particular self (even if I’d prefer the opposite), but as a person like the other. Second, you may feel some kind of reciprocity. Levinas, in a book about the Face, said that the face (not necessarily the physical or even psychological one) is a way to “face” the alterity – but, in Levinas’ account, I recognize the other’s suffering face. Here what I’m looking at is a smiling face, something quite different from a suffering face.

Over time, I finally came across with a hypothesis, an explanation for this (I guess) typical Danish behavior. Smiling is as much impersonal as swift eyes away. Here’s my guess: it is the way that the local culture found to regulate the social behavior, the borders between the intimacy/strangeness. In the social encounters, I unconsciously tell you: “Don’t be afraid, I’m a kind person, and I’ll not hurt you.” But, in return, “I hope you do the same to me.”

My question is: what happens when someone wants to demonstrate some particular “interest” in someone else, as when you are trying to get on with someone? There will be a different nuance in the way they smile, or look at one another? Could be the opposite, I mean, if I’m interested in you as a singular person, should I “ignore” you, or maybe could I have any trouble in staring at you?