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Don’t tell me to smile

Some things are weirdly predictable. A woman will write something about how much she hates being told to smile by strange men — such as [Smile, baby!] and [This morning a man told me to smile] — and the comments section will be full of guys telling her that being told to smile is no big deal and she shouldn’t dislike it so much. Nice work, random internet dudes! Not only do you want to tell me what to do with my face, you want to tell me how to feel about it when I get told what to do with my face! Say something else obnoxious — you could hit the jackass trifecta!

Anyway, why are you arguing? You should be taking notes. “Women hate being told to smile, okay, lemme cross ‘smile, beautiful!’ offa my list of fantastic chat-up lines.” Is there a particular reason you resist the knowledge that women hate being told to smile? It’s true, whether you accept it or not.

Maybe you are one of those “smile!” guys and you don’t want to think of yourself as a jerk. Fine. If you have never previously suspected that women hate being told to smile — if the merest inkling of a notion has literally never ever crossed your mind — I retroactively pronounce all past “smile!” incidents as the result of naivete, not jerkishness. But now that you know women hate it? Cut it out.

The cited articles and discussions tend to zero in on the “smile!” phenomenon as sexism and street harassment, and in the defense of “smile!”ers, some people point out that being ordered to smile isn’t always guys doing it to women they don’t know. This is true. Sometimes it’s your sweet but slightly annoying great aunt, or the person checking your groceries, or whatever. Sometimes people tell men to smile — I guess. I’ve never seen it happen, but whatever.

I always hated “smile!” for very Wednesday Addams reasons — I feel keenly the innate oppressiveness of the falsely cheerful mien. World, I am not smiling because I don’t feel like it, and why on earth do you think I ought to feel like it? You wanna see me smile, do something amusing. Telling a stranger to cheer up or smile might be kindly meant, but is actually a thoughtless thing to do — some of the people walking around not smiling have very tragic things going on in their lives that are absolutely none of your business.

If you wouldn’t tell a friend “smile!” or “cheer up!” when you knew they were coming home from a funeral, don’t say it to strangers whose circumstances you don’t know.

Being told to smile, no matter who is doing the telling, feels like being told that your own authentic feelings are invalid and don’t matter. Another person sees that you do not appear to be cheerful, and what they do in response is order you to appear cheerful for their benefit. If you are a “smile!”er, and you wonder why people hate being told to smile, imagine how they would react if you told them “dance, monkey, dance!” It’s pretty much the same thing.

Some feminist objections to the phenomenon of women being told to smile zero in on the idea that telling a woman to smile means you are telling her that you think she ought to appear decorative and emotionally available. But I think it’s even worse than that. Telling other people to smile can be a signal that you want them to take a subordinate social role. The higher status primate tells the lower status primate to smile, right? It doesn’t go the other way. (“Smiles, everyone!” — Mr. Rourke) That’s why your auntie is annoying when she does it (as your older relative, she is sort of in a socially dominant position by default) and that guy you don’t know can ruin your whole day.

Who wants to go around conceding the alpha primate role to random males on the street? Not me. Who wants to get called a bitch when they refuse? Not me, again. But if a guy genuinely thought that he was being nice when he told me to smile, why would he get so bent out of shape when I refuse? He wasn’t being nice to me. He wanted me to be nice to him. He wanted me to pretend he was boss for a minute. Well, no dice, buddy. You wanna call me a bitch? Whatever. Guess what? I AM a bitch. But I am not YOUR bitch.

That’s also why even seemingly innocuous things like “smile!” can be street harassment, and also why street harassment is part of what is called “rape culture.” A guy who wants to assert his dominance by forcing a smile is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through crude remarks is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through a subway grope is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through rape.

Most “smile!” men probably aren’t actually potential rapists, no. But if you are a “smile!”er, here’s the problem — remember how I told you that telling strangers to “smile!” can be downright cruel, because you don’t know them and you don’t know what misfortunes they might be suffering? Well, keep in mind that they don’t know you, either. They don’t know that you’re not a rapist, or mugger, or serial killer, or con man, or drug-addled to the point of violence, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or whatever.

They know only one thing about you — that you are obnoxious enough to tell strangers to smile. Can you blame them for assuming the worst?

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 21st, 2013 04:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you for explaining why I hate it so much. Before, all I could think to do is roll my eyes. Now, I will say: "Dance, monkey! Dance!"
Sep. 21st, 2013 06:06 pm (UTC)
I was thinking that a good response to "smile!" would be random orders -- Bark like a dog! Juggle chainsaws! Stand on your head!
Sep. 21st, 2013 05:15 pm (UTC)
I've been told to smile many times by self proclaimed well meaning adults. The experience has always been so frustrating and annoying that I wouldn't dream of telling anybody, man, woman or child, to smile.

That said, when I was an extraordinarily self conscious adolescent, whenever I passed someone who frowned or presented an angry expression on the street, I had a hard time not taking it personally. You see, when I was a kid, adults smiled and said "hi!" Other kids often smiled and said, "hi!" Then, all of a sudden, I was being treated like a piece of repulsive dirt by half the people I encountered. And, here's the important part, I didn't know why!

It took some pretty painfully heated discussions here on LiveJournal with some of my favorite women to teach me some perspective. It would have been really nice if it hadn't come to that, but I'm really not sure who's responsibility it is to tell our young men what to expect as they get older. We had some of that in school, but not the bit about smiling and privilege. My parents tried their best. And I stopped going to church when I was 12.

Not saying that churches typically teach the right thing, but I've been back recently and realized that they are the institution by which we typically pass on our concepts of "right behavior" and politeness, and ideas about what to expect from the world.

There's something in our culture that's still missing there.

If I get a chance to write comics about adolescent boys, there's going to be some model behavior displayed by at least one of their parents, just to make sure some literature has something worth imitating in it.

Edited at 2013-09-21 05:18 pm (UTC)
Sep. 21st, 2013 06:11 pm (UTC)
That's interesting -- I'm not sure what to make of your experiences -- are you saying that when you reached puberty, random people started acting negatively toward you? I guess I'm not entirely sure what you're talking about.

I experienced church as one of the places where people felt entitled to tell me to smile. "Smile! God loves you!" That sort of thing. So I'm not sure people are learning the right lesson there. Maybe it depends on the church.
Sep. 22nd, 2013 12:49 am (UTC)
I absolutely don't think church is teaching the right thing! At least, most churches. But it is set up to teach the right category of thing where other institutions are not. Otherwise, we rely on parents to pass these things on without any training...

I'd say my experience was that shortly after highschool is when I started noticing the frowns and the down turned eyes. About when I started looking like a big, potentially dangerous adult male, instead of some gangly kid who couldn't or wouldn't hurt anybody. I use the word adolescence, because it really does last well into your 20s for most people, especially the self consciousness and worry.

And not random people. Women, specifically. And usually women who were smaller than me, but I didn't make that connection right away.

Edited at 2013-09-22 12:58 am (UTC)
Sep. 21st, 2013 06:51 pm (UTC)
What's most annoying is when school photographers (I'm a teacher and often get photographed) tell me to smile.

The other day I needed to have my picture taken for my new biometric driver's license. The woman taking the picture kept getting after me to smile--and then, afterward, had to get a manager override because the default is for people to smile when their picture is taken. The software didn't recognize me--apparently the state programs the software for a smiling default. There was much drama, and I found it quite annoying. I hate smiling for formal pictures.

I don't recall having that much of a problem with my biometric passport picture. Then again, the Kinko's photographer did warn me that I might need to redo it.

The icon picture was taken by my husband at a concert. I prefer the informal smiling pictures because they look more natural, at least for me.
Sep. 21st, 2013 11:09 pm (UTC)
Weird, because they told me NOT to smile for my driving licence and passport. I look very grim when I don't smile, so I wanted to.

Edited at 2013-09-21 11:14 pm (UTC)
Sep. 23rd, 2013 04:16 pm (UTC)
I totally agree -- informal smiling pictures are way better than formal ones. Ick.
Sep. 23rd, 2013 04:55 pm (UTC)
apparently the state programs the software for a smiling default


passport picture

My last passport picture, they told me that only the US even allows for a smiling passport photo. Other countries require a neutral look.
Sep. 25th, 2013 09:30 pm (UTC)
You are right! I totally thought that you couldn't smile, and made Derek go back and get his retaken because he was smiling. He never smiles for pictures, and did during the damn passport picture. These are funny. http://travel.state.gov/passport/pptphotoreq/photoexamples/photoexamples_5300.html
Sep. 21st, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
Telling other people to smile can be a signal that you want them to take a subordinate social role. The higher status primate tells the lower status primate to smile, right?

YES. It's at the point where I don't know how much good those earnest "here's why you don't do it, guys!" articles do? As if they don't know on some level that it's a power play.
Sep. 22nd, 2013 12:54 am (UTC)
A lot of bullies don't realize that they're bullying, that they're making a power play. And often, it's that ignorance that is what gets in the way of them listening. When you call them on it, their reaction is to get defensive, because they really genuinely feel they are being unfairly attacked!

Which is why I'm thinking it's best to nip this problem in the bud and produce more stories, comics, books, t.v. shows and movies that show these things from the perspective of the women, but that also show model behavior in a sympathetic male character. The more this permeates our culture, the easier it is for the next generation to adopt the better way of thinking.

These articles are crucial reading material for the writers of such literature, though!
Sep. 23rd, 2013 04:56 pm (UTC)
I kind of assume that's why people on the comment threads are so eager to defend the "right" to do it. They do sense it's a power play, but they don't want to admit it.
Sep. 23rd, 2013 04:54 am (UTC)
Well said. Thank you for the new tool in toolbox.
Sep. 23rd, 2013 04:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Sep. 23rd, 2013 04:15 pm (UTC)
I've always perceived it, not as men demanding I be 'decorative', but as a power-play. As you say, it fits, then, with adults telling children to smile. (My mom used to do it, and it drove me batshit -- I'd be happily day dreaming, and she'd chide me for looking 'glum' - i.e., face in repose. Eventually I learned Ringo Starr's line "I can't help it, it's me face", and started using that).

I also like this: "You wanna see me smile, do something amusing" -- but I think the bar is even lower than that, for most people! If you want to see a smile, give a genuine smile yourself. It'll elicit a smile back most of the time, and if it doesn't, the person probably has bigger fish to fry/actual problems, and you should get over yourself.

Really, that kind of makes it obvious that it's harassment -- if the actual goal was smiling and general social happiness, they'd just be out smiling at people, not shouting at them.
Sep. 23rd, 2013 05:02 pm (UTC)
If you want to see a smile, give a genuine smile yourself [..] Really, that kind of makes it obvious that it's harassment -- if the actual goal was smiling and general social happiness, they'd just be out smiling at people, not shouting at them.


Also, quoting Ringo Starr is always a win.
Sep. 27th, 2013 04:36 am (UTC)
I've been told to smile. By a guy who thought I was female. Viewing me from the front. When I had a couple of days worth of stubble. I can't say I particularly appreciated it.
Sep. 27th, 2013 05:06 pm (UTC)
How drunk was he?
Sep. 28th, 2013 04:30 pm (UTC)
Didn't appear to be, but this was years ago in B'ham at Denny's. It didn't bother me nearly as much as it bothered the waiter, a rather pretty asian guy who had, himself, been mistaken for female a number of times.

Edited at 2013-09-28 04:32 pm (UTC)
Oct. 2nd, 2013 07:15 am (UTC)
This has happened to me too! I think my eyeliner confused the guy and being told to smile did feel like a power play from a total stranger in a bar...
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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