One way or another, wheelchairs are a fascinating perch for observers of human nature, and the very act of being in a wheelchair turns all of us into armchair – er, I mean wheelchair – sociologists. We are almost always the smallest minority in any given group, so every public outing allows us the opportunity to witness how others react to our “otherness.” Conversely, our own reactions to their reactions can tell us a lot about how we see ourselves while intermingling with the (mostly) able-bodied public.
Our wheelchairs put us front-row-center to an oncoming parade of subtle and not-so-subtle human behavior that you won’t find in any other social dynamic. And if there’s any one constant in our day-to-day encounters with the able-bodied, it’s the sympathy smile.
Yeah, you know it. We all know it. We see it almost every day, and several times a day if we’re publicly active. I see them most often while shopping, motoring around with a grocery basket on my lap. Context is everything: Most people don’t see many unassisted quads shopping for their own groceries, and I think that brings out a few more of the you-know-whats.
A Familiar Phenomenon
Simply put, the sympathy smile is that brief flash of kindness (or faux kindness) that you frequently get from slightly uncomfortable able-bodied people who are walking past you in the opposite direction. It’s one of those lesser-known social contracts triggered by eye contact, without which the sympathy smile cannot exist. But once eye contact is made, there it is! Like an involuntary reflex, the sympathy smile is flashed.
What’s so fascinating about the sympathy smile is that it holds myriad interpretations, all determined by the upbringing, personalities, perceptiveness and even genders of the two people involved in the transaction. By rough estimate I’ve seen about 5,000 sympathy smiles while wheeling in public, and like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike. It’s those little variations that can turn something potentially annoying into a curiously enjoyable game of “What’s Your Psychology?”
Like a fine wine, the sympathy smile can possess many different qualities that combine to make them unique, or at least easy to categorize. They can originate from any line of unspoken thought, depending on how we interpret them at the moment they occur. For example:
“Yeah, it totally sucks to be you. I get that. So I’m flashing this nice little smile so your life will suck just a little bit less for a second or two.”
Or how about: “You’ve noticed me noticing you, so I’ll put some positive spin on this with a gesture of reassurance. But I still think it would suck to be you.”
Or maybe: “I’m sorry, I can’t help it, but I feel awkward now that we’ve made eye contact. Here’s a smile to mask my discomfort.”
You get the idea. The unspoken thoughts we “hear” from behind those sympathy smiles are filtered through our own mindset, and we interpret sympathy smiles according to how well or badly we’ve adjusted to our disabled identity, with variants depending on whatever mood or context we’re in at the time. We’ve all had days when we feel like rewarding a sympathy smile with a knuckle sandwich. Sometimes I’m tempted to respond to sympathy smiles with the snarl of a rabid pitbull. Other times, out of sheer curiosity, I feel like asking the sympathy smiler, “Um, excuse me, but could you please tell me why you felt compelled to smile at me just now?”
After more than three decades of using a wheelchair, I still haven’t asked that question aloud. What would be the point? All you’d ever do is fluster the smiler into a deeper awkwardness. Still, I wonder what kind of answers I’d get if they were candidly honest. (Another thing I haven’t done is use a hidden camera or smartphone to capture sympathy smiles as they occur. If anyone out there wants to give it a try, please send us your videos!)
It’s fun to be snarky about sympathy smiles and poke fun at those who flash them, but annoyance and/or actual cynicism ultimately gets you nowhere. By their very nature, sympathy smiles are meant to diminish the same awkwardness that engenders them in the first place. They’re almost always a well-meaning exchange of everyday courtesy. By any rational measure, sympathy smiles are flashed with an absolute absence of malice.
And yet, the sympathy smile still speaks volumes about the social dynamic of being disabled in an able-bodied world. The sympathy smile is a behavioral litmus test between the teeming masses and a relatively tiny minority of “others,” and it illustrates what has been the central theme of most of my writing about disability: There is, and perhaps always will be, some degree of social disconnect between the disabled and the able-bodied public, who have little if any genuine awareness of what our lives are like and how “normal” we really are. And if awkwardness is what causes sympathy smiles in the first place, we should accept them at face value and diminish the awkwardness.
I wasn’t always as receptive to sympathy smiles in the past, but after all these years I now receive them with a nod of friendly acknowledgement. It takes two seconds and nobody gets hurt. I don’t care much for public sympathy and the undertone of pity that often goes along with it, but it’s probably never going away (entirely, anyway), so we might as well make the best of it.
On the other hand, if anyone flashes a sympathy smile AND pats me on the head, I’ll chew their frickin’ hand off. There are limits to my gratitude.
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