As a performance poet, Jovi Radtke strives to impress people with her words, but recently she’s been trying to change lives with a gesture.
Peruse the Sacramento woman’s Facebook page and it’s quickly evident she’s always smiling; grinning in groups, on the beach, with kids. But most often, she’s featured selfie-style mashed to another smiling face.
So, it’s no surprise that Radtke – a 32-year-old agent and performance poet – recently launched her #SmileBackSacramento campaign. Radtke’s mission, also dubbed #100SmilingStrangers, is to take a selfie – a smartphone self-portrait, for those living under a rock – with 100 strangers who return her smile this summer.
In an age when smartphones often serve as an escape and security blanket, Radtke is not the first person to propose a means of boosting real-world connections. The Free Hugs Campaign rose to national attention in 2006 with a YouTube video that’s been seen 75 million times. The Australian man who goes by the pseudonym Juan Mann said he started it after arriving at Sydney’s airport without someone to welcome him with a hug.
“We are too tuned into our phones or turned into ourselves we forget about other people,” Radtke said of those who don’t smile.
Some people pretend not to see her when she smiles their way, but “Most of the time they just don’t look up at all,” she said.
But smiling – a human expression that crosses all cultures – produces tangible positive effects, experts say. Evidence suggest smiling reduces stress-inducing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and increases mood-enhancing endorphins. People who smile more often tend to live longer, have more successful marriages and be better at sales.
Radtke’s campaign started with a walk and a March 26 Facebook post.
“So, after my stroll tonight, I’m 99.9% sure that 99.9% of people are not comfortable with smiling at passing strangers. I am 100% sure that I will do my best to change this. #GonnaSmileAtEverybodyNow,” she wrote.
While in a particularly good mood, Radtke said, she walked about a mile. But she arrived at her destination dispirited by the lack of social engagement among the 25 to 30 people she passed.
“I noticed that nobody was looking at me or smiling back,” Radtke said in a recent interview.
The post sparked a conversation.
“Florida is different.” “It’s an American thing.” “It’s a big city thing,” the first wave of comments went.
One friend confessed to avoiding eye contact. Others shared their observations. As of this publication, it’s been “liked” by 207 people with 61 comments, the largest response to one of her social media posts, Radtke said.
The day after that March post, she created “100smiling” Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr accounts and, using those accounts, introduced the faux-hawk-wearing Juan, the tight-lipped smiling Greg, the vested Charles, cap-sporting Lee, the lovely Cindy and head-shaven Jason.
From there, it took on a life of its own, Radtke said. One friend told her followers about the mission and pledged to donate to the Gender Health Center – a nonprofit for which Radtke has been an active volunteer – when she reached 100 posted smiles. Then, as is the case with social media movements, others made similar offers. She now expects to raise at least $5,000 for the health center when she reaches 100 smiles. The Gender Health Center primarily provides mental health counseling and other services for transgender people.
Smiles from friends or those she meets performing 3- to 6-minute poetry pieces don’t count. Radtke said she carries out her mission mostly while on early evening walks. She said the response differs greatly depending upon whether she has her dog with her. With the dog, around 90 percent smile back, without the dog the return rate drops to 60 percent, she said.
Radtke took to the street around South Side Park on Thursday evening. There she met Paul, whose entire face smiles along with his mouth; Josh, who was sporting a Major League Soccer shirt; Paul, who took out his earbuds to take the selfie; Wendy, who wore white polka dots; the bearded Justin; the broad-smiling Chris; a beaming John; elegant Ashleyn; and Brandyn, who produced a close-mouthed grin.
The successful evening put her at No. 48, nearly halfway to her goal. Some of those pictured seem to be having as much fun as Radtke.
Studies suggest people would be smart to play along. Entrepreneur Ron Gutman’s 2011 talk on “The Hidden Power of Smiling” has generated 3 million online views and has been turned into a book. In the talk, given at the popular TED conference and distributed online, Gutman suggests that returning a smile is a biological response.
“A recent study at Uppsala University in Sweden found that it’s very difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles. You ask, why? Because smiling is evolutionarily contagious, and it suppresses the control we usually have on our facial muscles,” Gutman said.
But, says René Dailey, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, people living in a dense environment sometimes disengage from nonverbal social interaction as a way to create more personal space. Just as one might put on earphones, read a magazine or even pretend to be asleep to avoid talking to an airplane seatmate, people feeling a lack of personal space in a city keep to themselves verbally and nonverbally.
“We like our space. When there is more people around us, we try to create that space,” Dailey said. “What they are trying to do is to create psychological distance.”
Radtke said it’s hard for her to say why some don’t smile back.
“If they don’t smile,” she said, “I’m a little nervous to ask them why they didn’t.”
Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.