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By Mark E. Smith

According to a new survey by Yahoo Travel, 31% of travelers think New York City is the unfriendliest city in the world.

As I read the articles on this, I was initially puzzled by how anyone could declare New York City the least friendly city in the world? After all, in recent years, I’ve spent a remarkable amount of time there, not so much as a tourist, but as one who’s immersed myself in the neighborhood culture, where Brooklyn, in particular, has become a sort of weekend getaway.

Now, if NYC was the least friendly city in the world, you’d think that I – as a power chair user, with severe cerebral palsy, with all of the social stigmas around it – should be invisible, if not shunned, in NYC, especially in local neighborhoods where people tend to know each other. Yet, to the contrary. From Brooklyn to the Upper East Side, it’s tough passing someone on the sidewalk who doesn’t say hello; people treating me so kindly, from opening doors to pulling out access ramps at local restaurants; and, people talk to me without reservation, as if they know me.

So, how is it possible that as a man with a severe disability, I find NYC among the friendliest places on Earth, while 31% of travelers find it the unfriendliest city in the world?

The answer is, those 31% are the most miserable people on Earth! If there’s one truth I know, it’s that the world is a mirror, and what we project is what we get back. New York City isn’t unfriendly; rather, 31% of travelers are. If you move through NYC with a scowl and a miserable attitude, people are going to scowl and give you a miserable attitude back. However, if you smile and treat everyone with gratitude and graciousness, they open up in the same way. It doesn’t matter what city or situation you’re in – your own behavior and persona dictates how others react to you.

I call all of this the Walmart Effect. I grocery shop at Walmart because I’m a no-nonsense kind-of-guy – I want all that I need in one store. What I’ve observed over the years is that every stereotype you’ve heard about Walmart is true – it’s a lower socio-economic demographic, where everyone from the customers to the cashiers can be from rude to crude. Yet, my experience doesn’t fit that stereotype at all.

I took my sister with me shopping at Walmart one eve, and half-way through, she stopped in an aisle and asked, “How come everyone is so nice to you here? I get treated like crap.”

Again, there’s no secret. I simply present myself in a welcoming way, where the world’s a reflection of my behavior. I smile, I acknowledge people, I excuse myself when moving among crowds. Graciousness goes a long way, and even at Walmart, if you smile and make eye contact, people smile and greet you back. People are good and kind, and when you treat them as such, they react equally.

Recently, I flew alone to Nashville, and I needed to get my airline seat upgraded because coach seats don’t suit my unconventional posture well. As a waited in line, the gentleman in front of me was screaming at the agent, leaving furious. I don’t know why he was so angry – a 31% club member, obviously! – but his behavior was totally inappropriate. I rolled up to the counter and explained that while I didn’t know the gentleman or his situation, his behavior was unacceptable and I offered my apologies for him to the agent. It was just a natural reaction for me, but she seemed genuinely touched that I acknowledged her not just as an airline agent, but as a person. What touched me was that when I explained that a bulkhead seat makes flying easier on me, she punched some buttons on her computer and said, “Mr. Smith, I’m putting you in the first row of First Class, where I’m sure you’ll be the most comfortable.” Indeed, kindness begets kindness.

The world is a mirror, reflecting what we project. If we want to live in a world that’s full of friendly, gracious, kind people, it begins with a smile on our own face, a pleasant demeanor and a kindness toward others. If we simply present ourselves with genuine positivity toward others, not only does New York City become the friendliest place on Earth, but so does everywhere we go.

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