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Deborah Elizabeth Finn is hoping her campaign will bring a smile to some people’s faces.
Deborah Elizabeth Finn is hoping her campaign will bring a smile to some people’s faces. (Evan Richman/ Globe Staff)

Smile pledge targets city image

Bostonians seen as cold snobs

Deborah Elizabeth Finn laments Boston's expensive housing, worries about the cost of just getting along, and wishes more people were civically engaged. But what really bothers her is that residents of this old Puritan town don't smile enough.

She wants to change that, and is leading by example.

She has posted a pledge on an Internet site -- ''I will smile and say hello to strangers I pass on the street in my neighborhood" -- and is asking others to enter in an electronic oath to do the same.

''Boston has some serious issues in the way that it is positioning itself to be a place that people want to stay in and move to," said Finn, a communications technology consultant to nonprofit firms and a resident of Beacon Hill. ''There's not a lot I can do about providing affordable housing, but if people perceive our culture as being cold and unwelcoming, well, I can smile and say hello to a stranger. We'll see if it works."

Finn is not the first to notice what some describe as the difficult Boston environment. Outside of the Northeast, Bostonians have reputations as chilly Yankees, sharp-elbowed East Coasters, winter-embittered snobs or -- dare it be said? -- people who are just plain rude. Who hasn't been on the receiving end of a certain one-fingered salute while driving the battle zone of the Central Artery?

''It's to the point where Bostonians have this mentality that everybody should walk around with a screwface," said lifelong Boston resident Sandie Centeio, 30, of Roxbury, while shopping at a local Target.

Centeio describes herself as a smiler. But the men, at least, seem to take it the wrong way.

''I have friends that tell me I'm too nice," Centeio said.

Finn's pledge request on www. pledgebank.com/HelloBoston asks 50 people to join her in promising to bestow pleasantness on strangers. She had originally wanted to ask for twice that many but then decided that was too ambitious. As of Sunday night, about three days into her effort, five people had entered their names and e-mail addresses and clicked the button that says ''Sign Pledge."

Finn said she was inspired to spread smiles by seminars put on by the Boston Foundation called ''What's Next," a series of discussions about civic, social, and economic issues affecting Boston.

At the seminars, which have been taking place since 2003, the subject of Boston's unwelcoming atmosphere pops up with unnerving frequency, said Jennifer Owens, who helps run the discussions.

''It's the sort of thing that comes up at every seminar," Owens said. ''We expect it now."

Lest anyone think this part of the world is in danger of losing its chilly identity because of Finn's effort, there are plenty of people on the other side of the argument. Bowdoin College professor Barbara Held has a book titled: ''Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining." Julie Norem, a Wellesley College professor, wrote ''The Positive Power of Negative Thinking."

University of Kansas associate professor Shane Lopez has written a textbook on positive psychology, and even he's not 100 percent sure that forced smiles will do the trick in Boston.

''It does make a difference on your part or their part if it is a genuine smile," said Lopez.

Lopez had some suggestions to even the odds in an effort such as Finn's: To get people to smile, people should get something for it, he said, citing studies in which people given a treat tend to have more genuine joy, which can translate into a smile.

Melissa Krodman, a public relations professional, was the first person to sign Finn's petition. Krodman grew up in Atlanta and Houston and moved to Boston nearly 10 years ago. Her first year at Boston University was a social shellshock, she said.

''I remember very clearly that I was sitting in my French class, and I just turned to the people next to me and started talking," said Krodman, who works with a Boston music label dedicated to creating positive music. ''I was met with blank stares and just cold faces. It was one of those moments when I realized, 'OK, that's how it's gonna be here.' "

Krodman, who is now dating someone who lives in Boston, said that she's met many warm people since her arrival but that it took her some time to break into the circles. She's been smiling at strangers ever since she arrived, but says it's nice to have an official smile plan in place.

''I see people in the workplace lower their heads so they won't have to talk to you," said lifelong Boston resident Michelle Rodriguez, 38, of Roxbury. '' 'Hello' doesn't take much. That smile can brighten someone else's day."

Adrienne P. Samuels can be reached at asamuels@globe.com.

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