I was born a fairly smiley person, befriending people with inadvertent grins, and responding to most situations in life with laughter, sometimes even at inappropriate moments (which has led to some very awkward conversations and many threats of “we can’t take you anywhere” but c’est la vie). This quality has led to a pretty free existence over all; don’t get me wrong, I’m all about open, clear communication but conflicts resolve pretty quickly when you can’t take yourself seriously and it’s hard to stay mad for long when conversations inadvertently devolve into a fit of giggles. This changed in 2011 when I made it to India for my first extended stay. As I navigated the Indian party of my Indian-American identity, I quickly realized that my smiles or laughs, especially with men, were quickly being interpreted as sexual availability. For example, I’d have guys sing me songs and true to form, I’d laugh (I don’t regret this decision) and then panic when they’d try and follow me home. I remember a tailor who took my smile as an invitation to grope my boob when he was measuring me. Within the course of a month, I went from happy-go-lucky Radhika to relaxed bitch face, perpetually on guard Radhika. What started as a survival mechanism slowly grew into a confounding observation upon my return: I had stopped smiling at people I didn’t know, averting my eyes in fear that they’d approach me or even worse, talk to me. About a month ago, I decided to change this pattern. I’ve started smiling at random strangers and have become more conscious of shifty eyes and panicked glances at my phone, desperately trying to prevent human connection. It’s so much easier to avoid people than it is to engage with their humanity, look them in their eyes, confidently speak (even if you’re just saying “no thank you”) and move on with your day. While I’d like to say I’ve progressed from the initial panic, I’ve realized that we all do it. We seem to have turned smiling, eye contact and organic conversations into “awkward” forms of social interaction. Today I’m grateful for this cognizance in the hope that I can trust my intuition when something is off, yes, but not discount all exchanges as malefic. Deep down, we all crave acknowledgement and love, why give up on that idealism because of a few isolated interactions?