A few months ago, I went to dinner with a large group of friends. Most of the people I was eating dinner with I hadn't seen in a few months, so I was looking forward to catching up in person.
While we waited for dinner, I noticed some of my friends were present but not really there. They were lost in their phones, all Snapchatting, Tindering, or looking up new things online.
I left the dinner feeling deflated, disconnected, and even lonelier than before. This experience made me start asking a question: How much is too much when it comes to technology?
This doesn’t just happen at dinner tables—it happens at conferences, at work and school, in public places, and even in our own homes.
Is technology robbing us of the ability to make meaningful, real, in-person connections?
Walking home that evening, I saw my fellow travelers looking down into their phones with new eyes. We close ourselves off to the potential for meaningful connections by disappearing into a virtual world.
So, how do we bring those moments of spontaneous, authentic connection back into our lives?
I wanted to get to the heart of why it's so hard for us to connect with others in person. Five, ten years ago this wouldn't have been an issue. But as culture shifts, so, too, does the human experience.
So, I decided to do a social experiment. I decided to smile at every single person for an entire day just to see what happened. The results were, to say the least, surprising.
I started my day walking my dog. As I walked past other dog walkers, I smiled at each one, determined to make eye contact. Of the four people I passed, two completely ignored me, one said "hi" under his breath with no smile, another halfway smiled but started walking faster past me.
"What is this? Do I have something on my face?" I thought. Why was it so hard to get a smile back?
Onward I marched.
I was attending TedX Portland, a large conference that I thought would make my experiment super-easy. People are always connecting at conferences, right? Well, to my surprise, smiling soon became exhausting. Here's why:
Again, the phones—THE PHONES. They seemed to be what people were more comfortable with than actual, real-time conversations. When I sat down next to a stranger, I smiled and tried to strike up a conversation. I asked if she had ever been to the conference before. Innocent enough, right?
A quick response—"No, this is my first time,"—was all she said, and then she pulled out her phone to look through emails.
Perplexed, I continued to smile even brighter. As my eyes lit up, I was scanning the crowd, looking for recognition, looking for returned eye contact, maybe a returned smile.
On the break, I made a point to look into the eyes of everyone I passed. I had a perma-grin on my face. I was smiling so brightly it actually made me feel happier. I felt a sense of joy wash over me, even though no one else was playing my newfound game.
Most people looked away very quickly. Some looked back after a few seconds to see if I was still smiling. "Can someone really be that happy?" "What is she smiling about?" I assumed they were thinking.
I quickly learned that smiling alone wasn't getting enough of a reaction from people. For every 15 people I smiled at, one person smiled back. I was at a conference of more than 3,000 people, and that was surprising to me.
Most people looked away or did shady, shifty eyes—some even turned around, as if to avoid coming in my direction. But every once in a while my smile was returned and elicited a genuine, thoughtful exchange.
So, I took it to the next level:
I realized that if my goal was to create connection, I would need to take my experiment up a notch, so I started to initiate conversation. I don't do this often because, well, we live in a facedown society. Talking to strangers when you can talk to people you know on social media or through text has become more acceptable.
But something happened when I started initiating conversations; I saw a shift. A lightness overcame some people. Sure, there were a few who answered quickly, then scurried nervously away—but for the most part, when my smile was accompanied with a question, a greeting, or a compliment, conversations began.
People began to drop their guard a bit. I had an opportunity to get glimpses into people's worlds. I met Sam, the young Portland entrepreneur who has a love for new ideas and always wants to better himself. He seemed genuinely relieved when I initiated conversation. He smiled throughout our conversation, and I could tell our talking was a welcome situation, freeing him from feeling awkward and alone.
Then there was Sara, the 26-year-old woman who bumped into a Bumble match by accident. Seeing him in person, she realized how unsuitable he was for her. In her sharing her story with me, I felt an exchange, a release. Here I was, a complete stranger just five minutes ago, and she was sharing intimate details of her dating life with me. This all unraveled by me asking a simple question: "What brought you to the conference?"
Despite our differences, we really are more alike than we realize. We all want connection; we all want love; we all want to be heard and seen.
A smile was good, but initiating conversation was better. Breaking down the invisible barrier starts with one person getting out of their comfort zone, saying something out of the blue, talking to a complete stranger. This is what our mothers and grandmothers did. How did we lose our sense of community?
If I never forced myself to get out of my comfort zone and break down the invisible barrier, I wouldn't have met these amazing people.
My experiment taught me about the power of getting out of your comfort zone.
Perhaps we all want a deeper connection—we want to feel more, be more, contribute more—but in order for us to reach this goal we have to step outside of our comfort zone more.
I thought that by the end of the day I would feel some sense of peace and more happiness—after all, smiling is one of the fastest ways to feel more joy—but what I learned is that it's never really about the smile but the connection that can be made from breaking through to the other side.
Feeling connected to others isn't something that just happens. It has to be earned; it has to be worked for. And the only way you get this is to commit to it. After an entire day of smiling and talking to strangers, I felt a connection, a deeper meaning and purpose.
Perhaps we can all embrace the experiment and reach out, say "hi," connect more. Because when you reach out to others, you help not only yourself—you help the world.